I wonder if anyone else has doubts about the idea of wearing a face mask as part of their outfit? Recently, before the second lockdown, I travelled by underground and was interested to see not only the variety of masks in use but also the manner in which they were being worn. A lot of people seemed to be favouring the disposable white variety or the more robust, standard black type. I couldn’t see any particular demographic themes or commonalities in what type of people were wearing which, such as age or sex. What I did notice was what I’d call the mask as fashion statement and one worn mainly by women.
One woman sat across from me in the carriage wearing a leopard skin mask that coordinated with her ocelot-patterned coat and short skirt. At first I thought I was irritated by her because she spent most of the twenty minute journey with the mask round her neck, eating a particularly pungent beef burger and trying to tempt her companion, a young guy in a black mask, to pull his face covering down and to take a bite of her food but then I realised it was the on-her-face/in-my-face mask that was doing it.
Surely face masks are a kind of necessary evil and a temporary measure? I write this because there are so many inherent disadvantages in the wearing of them and find the idea of reframing them as a fashion accessory to enhance appearance challenging. Our faces are so unique and communicative, so core to our identity, our sense of freedom, our interaction and experience of the world and everyday life, that to have to cover them is surely unwelcome. It seems almost celebratory to wear a mask that is designed to be eye-catching and stylish.
An etymological exploration of the word ‘mask’ traces its roots back to the Spanish and Arabic mask or masque, referring primarily to the mask worn for entertainment, usually buffoonery or jest and only in a secondary sense as disguise. Other, some contemporary, functions and meanings of the mask, link it with protection, ritual, crime and sports. However, if you google the word now you will be bombarded with advertisements for and articles about surgical and medical masks whose sole purpose is to prevent infection and block droplets emitted from a person’s mouth that may be picked up by another.
In psychology the term masking has been used for the changes that individuals make in order to conform to social pressures, abuse or harassment, for example a person suffering from depression may deliberately mask their symptoms in order to appear ‘normal’ and thus reduce censure or stigma. It is also used in controlled cognitive psychology experiments in which a sensory stimulus, usually one of a visual nature, is presented immediately after another brief ‘target’ stimulus resulting in a failure of the subject to recall the first stimulus, i.e. as a foil or deception.
Perhaps it is understandable then, that if you give it any thought, the wearing of a mask has too many difficult connotations to be embraced in any kind of a celebratory, emancipatory or supposedly aesthetic sense. On the other hand, maybe it’s just a case of making the best of a bad job and an attempt to cheer everyone up?