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For We Are A Masked People - Jorge Socarras

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5 min read

Masks may be a part of the new normal, but they've been with us for 9,000 years.

In the “new normal” prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it may no longer strike us as peculiar to see people wearing protective masks of some kind, especially if we ourselves are wearing them. It used to be almost exclusively Asians that wore surgical masks in public, but now they are looking more like everyday wear for the population at large. For many of us, wearing a mask was something we only did on Halloween or for some other costume event. While the choice accessory of the new normal may be a first in our own lifetimes, it’s certainly not a first historically. Photos from the 1918 influenza pandemic show scenes of people worldwide wearing protective masks. But the story of masks is much, much older.

Masks have been used for protection, ritual, ceremony or entertainment throughout the history of civilization. Many were used primarily in religious ceremonies, fertility rites, healing rituals, or funerary purposes. Still others are for specific celebrations, dramatic performances and mythological reenactments. Masks have been used as in warfare as protective devices as well as to inspire fear in enemies. They have also been used for punishment and torture.

The earliest extant masks date to the Neolithic period and are possibly 9,000 years ago. Found in the Judean desert, these stone masks have starkly cut round eyes, tiny noses and prominent teeth, and are thought to have represented or invoke the spirits of dead ancestors. It’s possible that masks were made even earlier from materials that wouldn’t haven’t survived, such as wood or leather.

Neolithic stone masks, 7,000–9,000 BC, Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The ancient Egyptians buried their dead in masks. Placed upon the face of the mummified deceased, these masks often contained incantations to protect the spirit on its journey in the afterlife. Painted with gold and inset with precious stones, masks such as King Tut’s still astonish us with their splendor today. Native African cultures have long used masks as part of their ceremonial costumes. The masks are often made to represent the spirits of ancestors or of certain deities, so that a dancer wearing the mask might represent or even be possessed by the designated spirit. Native American masks serve a similar function, and are also used for healing purposes and ceremonial entertainment.

King Tut’s mask, Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The ancient Celts used masks for Samhain, their festival celebrating the end of summer. The Celts donned costumes and masks intended to scare away evil spirits and prevent them from entering their homes, meanwhile hiding their own identities from the spirits. This then is the origin of Halloween masks. Centuries later, Halloween masks would be adapted during the Italian Renaissance for masquerade balls—not to scare off evil spirits, but to hide the wearers’ faces so that they might get away with mischief of their own. Rather than the frightening masks of the Celts, the Italians wore beautiful masks, sometimes lavishly decorated with gold and jewels.

 

Venetian masks from Michael Powell’s “Tales of Hoffmann”,1951

The Victorian era saw the proliferation of yet a different kind of mask, the kind used for erotic and fetish play. These were most often made of black silk or velvet, fabrics that heightened the sensuality of the experience. The mid-20th century saw a resurgence of fetish wear, with leather becoming the preferred material for masks, notably in gay and S&M culture. The 70s saw a surge in latex fetish masks, items that remain popular in sex shops today. Pop culture has also enriched the popularity of masks, with heroes and villains from Zorro to Batman, Catwoman, Spiderman, Leatherface and Hannibal Lecter, all wearing ones emblematic of their identities. Not to mention Jason from Friday the 13th repurposing the hockey mask. All of these have been incorporated into the tradition of Halloween masks.

 Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, from the Batman TV series, 1967

On a more somber note, masks have also been used to hide facial disfigurements. This was notably the case after World War 1, when facial prosthetics were being produced en masse in response to the huge number of veterans with injuries that were beyond surgical repair. Sculptors and artist were often recruited to tailor-make masks for these disfigured soldiers, with results that were impressive even by today’s standards. 

French soldier being fitted with prosthetic mask, 1918. Photo: Library of Congress

Circling back to the pandemic, masks as protection from illness have their own distinctive history dating back to the plague in early 17th century France. Covering the nose and mouth was already part of sanitary practice against contagion when in 1619 Charles de Lorme designed the iconic bird-beak mask associated with the plague doctors. As described by de Lorme, the mask had a "nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak." The “drugs” in the case comprised aromatic herbs and scents that were believed to neutralize the so-called miasma in the air, considered responsible for transmitting disease. Plague masks also had spectacles attached, something still considered added protection to masks today.

Near the end of the 19th century, attempting to protect open wounds from infection during surgery, Johann Mikulicz of the University of Breslau came up with a face mask, which he described as “a piece of gauze tied by two strings to the cap, and sweeping across the face so as to cover the nose and mouth and beard”. During the 1918–19 influenza pandemic, masks were mandatory for medical workers and police forces, as well as residents of certain US cities, such as San Francisco, where they were shown to lower the number of deaths from the pandemic. By the 1930s most hospital workers were using cotton masks. In the 1960s disposable hospital masks started replacing cotton ones, part of the trend in towards total disposability to help maintain sterility, as well as to reduce labor costs and meet increased demand.

In today’s Covid 19 pandemic, health officials around much of the world have either recommended or mandated that citizens wear masks in public, especially when safe social distance cannot be maintained. Along with the standard medical varieties, there have emerged myriad varieties of homemade and cottage-industry masks, as well as mass-media tutorials showing people how to make their own. As masks become more “normal” we are also seeing many more creative and stylish versions. (You can find some here on our website.) Considering their ancient transcultural roots, how interesting is it that we are again wearing masks all around the globe?

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