The Mask – The New York Times

The surgical face masks has develop into a logo of our instances.

If there’s a image of the present confusion and concern, the misinformation and anxiousness, generated by the unfold of the brand new coronavirus, it’s the surgical face masks. When historical past appears again on the pandemic of 2020, these white or child blue rectangles that cover the mouth and nostril, turning everybody right into a muzzled pelican, can be what we see.

The masks started showing virtually instantly after the an infection was recognized, first in Asia, the place masks had been already frequent, after which in Europe. These days they’re all over the place. (And nowhere — there’s a severe face masks scarcity).

Now pictures of individuals in masks illustrate virtually each information article concerning the virus, on entrance pages and social media alike. After all, the contagion itself is intangible: a microscopic organism resting on onerous surfaces, transmitted via the air in water droplets from contaminated people. It can’t be seen.

Even greater than bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, the masks has develop into the virus’s avatar; shorthand for our looming dread, need to cover, lack of ability to guard ourselves, and need to do one thing — something — to look to take motion.

In this it’s merely the most recent iteration of an object (an adjunct?) that has occupied an outsize function in numerous cultures and our unstated types of communication because it was created within the mid-1890s. Face masks — the mouth-and-nostril-overlaying variety, versus the attention-overlaying variety or the Michael Myers variety, each of which have their very own historical past and set of associations — have lengthy been a fraught image.

They have represented security and safety from illness and air pollution; solidarity; protest; racism; a trend pattern; and now, pandemic. They have been, stated Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a sign of “something that hides but also communicates.” It is, he said, “an interesting dialectic, and one very dependent on context.”

How did what is essentially some gauze held on by straps take on so much meaning?

A Brief History of the Surgical Face Mask

According to “History of Surgical Face Masks: The myths, the masks, and the men and women behind them,” by John L. Spooner, face masks first appeared at the very end of 19th century, used as a protective measure worn by doctors during surgery to prevent airborne bacteria from entering an open wound.

They were then adopted in 1910 by the Chinese authorities to prevent the spread of pneumonic plague and, Mr. Lynteris said, became “emblematic of medical modernity. They had a double function — both to stop germs and to transform people into scientifically minded citizens.”

Eight years later, they became a global phenomenon, when they were widely adopted as protection against the Spanish flu.

“You can see masks in drawings of fashionably dressed people with masks,” Mr. Lynteris said. “There was a popular acceptance of the mask as part of life.” Though use of the masks receded afterward World War I, they remained popular in China, where masks symbolized care for the community and civic awareness, “even in Communist public health campaigns,” Mr. Lynteris said.

Then came the SARS epidemic, beginning in 2002, and a mask resurgence, in China, Hong Kong and across most of East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as in the public mind, as a sign of “heath awareness and civic duty.” It is sheer politeness to wear a mask to avoid sneezing on your neighbor.

At the same time, as awareness of environmental degradation, pollution and air quality has become a growing topic of conversation, masks took on a different role: as air filters in urban centers and harbingers of the climate crisis — not just in such cities as Mumbai, Beijing, Tokyo and Mexico City, but also, more recently, during the bush fires in Australia.

“There is a certain ‘Blade Runner’-y feeling of embracing our fashionable dystopia that I enjoyed,” one young Australian said in The Guardian of why he had embraced the face mask.

Less than a month ago, celebrities and models began to post selfies in their masks on social media — most often from airplanes, but also from the street. Here was Bella Hadid on her flight out of Milan, in fedora, scarf and surgical face mask. There was Gwyneth Paltrow en route to Paris in a black Nemen x Airinum breathing mask.

Ms. Serre produces her masks, which she showed during Paris Fashion Week at the end of February, in collaboration with the Swedish company Airinum. (A number of specialty mask makers have sprung up in recent years to meet consumer demand, including Vogmask in San Francisco, the Cambridge Mask Co. in England and AusAir in Australia.) And though Ms. Serre does not recommend them for viral protection, she has noticed a change in the reception.

In the past, the masks made many viewers uneasy, Ms. Serre said, but not this season. “People were more and more enthusiastic about it,” she said. “But it’s not really a positive thing, I think.”

It’s an awkward conversation to have. To sell masks at a premium, as many brands do, during a crisis, can seem like profiteering. Not to mention a perpetuating of class difference. Who can afford to pay for the protection of their choice?

And given the medical messages about masks and the new coronavirus, and the fact they don’t necessarily work as a barrier for healthy people, it could also be seen as spreading misinformation.

Perhaps we will reach the point where wearing a mask will be seen, as it is in Asia, as a sign of care and a gesture of community. Where wearing a mask is not a sign of fear and difference, but of human commonality. Perhaps they will remain an uneasy subject, representation of a cratering society.

Either way, there is no question that this kind of mask, like the tribal ones the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about in “The Way of the Masks,” will continue to be layered with the myths that we write to explain our own history.

Photo illustration by The New York Times; from left: Bettmann/Corbis (A street cleaner in New York during an outbreak of Spanish influenza in 1918), Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times (a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong), United Press International (sanitation workers in Chicago during the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918), Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times (a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong in January 2020), Reuters (Ayleo Bowles), Reuters (Medical staff addressing the SARS epidemic in 2003), Getty Images (Marine Serre’s Spring Summer 2020 show), United Press International (masked Red Cross workers in 1918), AFP (a man in Hong Kong in 2003 during the SARS epidemic), Getty Images (Masha Ma’s Spring Summer 2015 show), Getty Images (Hong Kong in 2003), Reuters (Billie Eilish), Getty Images (St. Louis Red Cross Motor Cross on duty during the American Influenza epidemic in 1918), Getty Images (Hong Kong in 2003), Reuters (Taipei in 2003 during the SARS epidemic), Getty Images (Hong Kong in 2003), AFP (Hong Kong in 2003), Reuters (Hong Kong in 2003)

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