Analyzing masks themselves, as well as the experiences of people who make and use them – the design, the material, and the prominent place face masks have in our lives – is a way to gain insight into stories of the pandemic experience that cut across social strata. Material culture centers objects as historical documents that can be read like a text; whether highlighting the physical piece or searching for the biography behind it, this approach reveals complex sociocultural behavior. In 1974, E. McClung Fleming commented that “Every culture, however primitive or advanced, is absolutely dependent on its artifacts for its survival and self-realization.”1 That is even more true now, where masks are common objects representing shared experience in the immediate moment. Even the lack of a mask can indicate a political position or the inaccessibility of resources, skill, or time.
Masks have been used throughout history in response to disease, and the differences between them mark particular moments in time. For example, the plague mask associated with Black Death reflected not only the attempt to protect a doctor from being close to a victim but also the early-modern European belief in miasma, dangerous or poisonous air. The mask became the physical embodiment of time-specific medical and scientific knowledge. These masks were used almost exclusively by doctors, rather than as a popularly adopted protection from disease. Contrast these to the linen or gauze masks associated with (and widely photographed during) the global influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919. Gone were the long beaks to protect against miasma. Following military and medical supply chains already in service during World War I, these new masks were easily produced and distributed. In many cases – from the plague of the 1300s through cholera in the 1800s and influenza of the 1900s – masking was the purview of medical personnel and officials. Masking of the general population was not yet widely practiced, though there were attempts throughout 1918 and 1919.
Masks of the current pandemic have become ubiquitous and are often overlooked in the analysis of what this time means. Yet, they raise important questions that are worth exploring and open up a rhetorical space to do so. For example, the discourse surrounding Kim Kardashian West’s shapewear company’s facemasks highlight the divergent masking policies by geography, the ability to transition production lines to mask-making (which impacts color choices), and branding. At a cost of $8 a piece, these masks are not out of reach for people who want the cache of the Kardashian brand. But $8 also prices out many who are unemployed or without access to banking or the internet. There are still higher-end masks, such as those constructed out of Louis Vuitton materials (which can run as high as $1,800 dollars), and single-use surgical masks which are worn and reworn well beyond their original intent. In this way, face masks mobilize status, positioning the wearer in a relational hierarchy of culture and society.