Illustration: Hannah Berry

The masks we wear (or don't)

Once face coverings became optional, we could truly see their theatrical side
November 3, 2021

For a scrap of fabric that hides the part of the face with which we communicate most, the face mask certainly says a lot. It’s hard to think of an item of apparel that has acquired so many fraught layers of significance and controversy in such a brief space of time.

Religious head-coverings? Polarising though they are in a country like France, with its eternal far-right flirtation, they’ve yet to become so politically inflammatory on this side of the Channel. Ties? They can express social standing and all manner of affiliations, but their evolution spans centuries. Women’s undergarments have of course been their own battleground, but even the bra’s meaning hasn’t fluctuated with the rapidity of the face mask. Besides, didn’t lockdowns supposedly liberate us from their corset-like grip? 

Face masks, meanwhile, aren’t going anywhere. Confusion has surrounded them from the start of the pandemic, and though their efficacy is now less contested, their social currency only grew harder to parse after their wearing became mostly optional. The decision to put one on can be a statement as loud as a T-shirt slogan; the precise nature of that statement, however, remains fast-changing and unclear.  

In early March 2020, I met up with a friend at the V&A. In its galleries and outside, a few people were already wearing masks. We shot nervous glances at our kids, both at an age when personal comments are vociferously forthcoming, but in the end it was my friend who said something. “I wish people wouldn’t wear those,” she whispered. “It’s so alarming.” 

In anthropological history, masks have often been potent devices, enabling their wearers to transcend themselves. In North America, First Nation cultures carved wooden animal masks that could be opened up by pulling a string, revealing a second mask depicting a human face. Today, the face mask is safety and fear combined; it signifies a society-minded commitment to look out for others while also forming a barrier to basic connection (has anyone truly perfected the eye-smile?). All this before you consider what style a person chooses (floral fabric, surgical blue single-use, BLM emblazoned?) and how they wear it (hoicked up to the eyeballs or—horror of horror—schnozz out?). In certain contexts—the London Underground during rush hour, say—they remain emotive even, make that especially, when absent.

Stateside, Covid has flipped the cultural script where rebellion is concerned. It’s mostly been liberals complying with mask-wearing regulations, leaving the rule-breaking to conservatives. Here in the UK it’s more nuanced—heedless libertarians, it turns out, come in all political stripes and hail from every generation. If anything, I have probably directed more mask-shaming (conveyed through raised eyebrows, naturally) at those who appear to be more vulnerable to Covid complications. Is that reasonable? I’m really not sure. 

I don’t know about you but for me, masks are now totems of nagging uncertainty—and the lack of one a sign of caution fatigue. With alertness waning and cases still rising, they’re becoming something like props for use in hygiene theatre: those precautions we take to feel better but which make limited epidemiological sense, viz the tatty rectangle that you fished from the laundry hamper as you dashed out of the house this morning. 

To wear or not to wear results in some perplexing social dances, uncomfortably revealing the extent to which we’re prone to peer pressure and conformity. Every week at my daughter’s music lesson, I do a peculiar little jig with her teacher: she’ll wear one if I’ll wear one, so I’ll put one on even though she’s told me that most of the other parents no longer bother, but then I’ll add that she herself really doesn’t need to, because teaching in one can’t be pleasant. And what about when I walk into a shop whose staff are maskless? Does it leave my “I care about you” looking like paternalistic virtue-signalling or worse, querulous self-preservation? 

A while back, I stumbled on an article in Nature magazine, urging us to ditch our fabric masks for the surgical ones. I duly ordered a box and opened it up to find beaky 3D things. Had I ordered them in black instead of white, they’d have called to mind nothing more than the masks worn by plague doctors, but I’m hoping I can use them to channel instead the joyful spirit of Venetian masks: celebration, a little escapism, and, if it turns out I’m the only one in the room who wants to mask up, disobedience. Then again, I might just look like a neurotic party-pooper.