In November 1937, the Times of India (ToI) carried a curiously chilling report from the UK. With fears of war rising, and memories of the poison gas attacks of the previous war still vivid, “trials to see whether small children could wear gas masks in the event of an air raid were carried out…” The report explained how officials visited a children’s home called Babies Castle where 70 children, from babies to five years, were selected “by reason of their varying sizes of head” and given black rubber masks to play with. Nurses asked, “Who would like to wear one of these funny faces?” to get them to put them on.
This exercise proved the obvious points that children needed smaller masks and could be induced to wear them (though “babies cannot wear masks”). It was also an early sign of how face masks would become indispensable accessories of the modern age, whether worn for protection or fun or, as with those children, both reasons.
Face masks are omnipresent these days, most obviously because of coronavirus fears. Across the world face masks are being sold out, hoarded or sold at a premium. The Indian government briefly banned exports of masks. The Japanese government is giving subsidies for face mask manufacturers, while one leading company, Kawamoto, has seen its share price zoom by 479 per cent in one month.
One of the many ironies of this current epidemic is that China, which is the source of it, is also the source of most of the world’s face masks. This might seem a good fit of problem and solution, but as the virus spreads rapidly across the world it has made countries uncomfortably aware of their dependence on China for medical supplies. This epidemic is bound to lead to calls for better control over face mask supply and distribution. Meanwhile in China car companies are switching production from motors to masks.
Hong Kong is debating free distribution of face masks, which is particularly ironic since just a few months it tried banning the use of them in public. This is another side of the face mask boom – their use in political protests, as a way to avoid individual identification and punishment, and also to show solidarity with a larger cause. This has become so common that different types of protest masks can be identified, like Black Bloc, a simple black face covering, like a bandanna, or the stylised smiling Guy Fawkes masks of Anonymous.
The growth of surveillance and facial recognition technology, particularly in China, has made use of protests masks even more imperative. In October last year, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive invoked a British era law to pass the Prohibition on Face Covering Regulation, which criminalises wearing a mask at even lawful protests with a year in jail and a HK$25,000 fine. The law was widely disobeyed, has been challenged in court and seems unlikely to be used when much of Hong Kong is wearing masks for medical reasons.
Hong Kong’s law is far from being an anomaly. There are many such laws across the world, and not just in authoritarian states. Western democracies like Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany all have laws banning facial coverings during protests. The reasons may vary, from Islamophobia to reactions to the violent student protests of the 1960s, and the laws may only rarely be enforced, but there is a clear sense that concealing one’s face is potentially threatening behaviour.
It is also true, of course, that face masks have always been used by criminals. A spate of rural robberies in 18th century Britain lead to what was called the Black Act in 1723, because the perpetrators blacked or concealed their faces. The law mandated the death penalty for doing this and while it was repealed in 1823, the thinking seems to have survived in the Hong Kong law. In India facial concealment during crimes is common – last year robbers looted 30 kg of jewellery from a Tiruchirapalli store while wearing cat and dog masks.
If masks have not featured much in current protests in India it might be because, in an interesting inversion, it is the governing party that has used mask most effectively. The Narendra Modi mask that was created by Manish Bharadia, was a subtle rebuke to the earlier Congress charge of Atal Bihari Vajpayee being the acceptable ‘mukhota’ of the much more radical Sangh, and it also helped make the politician into a brand.
Some of the most intense debates over face masks have taken place in Canada. When student protests’ against hikes in college fees rocked Quebec in 2012, the government passed a law banning face masks during protests, arguing that their use separated legitimate protestors from general miscreants. Montreal’s mayor, Gerald Tremblay summed it up: “When your cause is just and your intentions are good, why hide your face?”
In fact, as Jennifer B.Spiegel notes in her paper ‘Masked Protest in the Age of Austerity” such neat divisions didn’t work. The authorities clearly intended to find ways to fine and discourage individuals, and split the movement – but this required them to identify individuals first. The protestors responded with a carnival like explosion of face masks in all colours and forms. Some came only in face masks – but otherwise nearly nude. One protestor wore a full panda outfit, much like the costumed mascots that are part of sports events.
ENTERTAINMENT & RITUALS
This nearly linked politics to the third reason for the popularity of face masks – their use in entertainment and the chance to have anonymous, liberating fun. This has always been a reason to use masks, particularly as part of the anarchic rulebending time of Carnival. During that period a poor person with a mask could pretend to enjoy the life – generally, meaning sex – of the rich, while the rich could get the thrill of slumming for a while.
The use of masks for ritual purposes is ancient. One of the oldest known specimens is a stone mask from over 7000 years back, probably from Palestine, and looking eerily like the smiley face emoji, except for its empty eyes. But masks were very likely known from far earlier, but haven’t survived because they were made with perishable materials. They would have helped priests perform the role of gods or demons in rituals.
Masks also came to be used for protective purposes, to protect the face from the cut and slash of swords. Death masks left in tombs were ways to remember those who had died, and perhaps ensure that their image lasted when the physical flesh of their faces had rotted away. During plagues masks were used from the belief that miasmas, or bad smells spread diseases, and these would at least have stopped airborne infections like today.
Some of these uses started diminishing with time – most formal religions dropped masks and guns made face masks for combat irrelevant (they survive in the sport of fencing). But as Michael Foley notes in his book Isn’t This Fun? Investigating the Serious Business of Enjoying Ourselves, this is lead to a new form of fun: “the masquerade, or masked ball, is an attempt by the rich and sophisticated to combine the hieratic power of the ritual mask with the transgressive carnival energy of the lower orders.”
Venice was particularly associated with Carnival masks – tourists still buy them by the thousands – and the idea of a Venetian masked ball was taken up by Western culture, and then across the world. Masked parties were a very popular entertainment during the British Raj in India, and in the USA they transmuted into the costumed chaos of Halloween. More recently, events like Burning Man, where participants descend in outrageous, carefully planned costumes, has reinvented the idea for the new millennium.
Artists and the entertainment industry have always been drawn to the many meanings of masked revelry. Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) combines the idea with a plot to assassinate a king that was so controversial that the work in its original form was banned. The several Mask of Zorro films involve the idea of a masked hero battling an oppressive regime. Masked comic heros like Batman and Phantom reinvented the idea for a new art form.
Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask drew on a historical legend of a masked prisoner linked to a king, and also to a tradition of keeping prisoners masked as a way to emphasise their vulnerability. But the power of masks means that this tends to work the other, with the example of the masked Hannibal Lector showing how masks work powerfully with horror films. The masked protagonist of the Phantom of the Opera shows another medical use of masks, to hide the horrors of facial disfigurement.
It was, perhaps, not a surprise that the advent of photography also saw a renewed interest in masks. When one’s face could be easily captured, the desire to avoid this grew. Similarly, the huge growth of social media in recent years, with all its incessant selfies and personal sharing, has created a desire for masked concealment. Phone filters now allow digital masks to be imposed easily. A whole genre of masked musicians has emerged, like Deadmau5 and Slipknot, that use the paradoxical power of masks both to conceal their identities and enhance their brands and masked mystique.
All these meanings of masks gained particular power from two events that concluded a 100 years back. The First World War resulted in a new demand for masks. Medical advances meant that many who would have died in the past survived, but badly disfigured, and masks were created to help them (plastic surgery would only develop during the Second World War). The eerie images of these masks, and the suffering that lay behind them, seem to have influenced many artists in the era between the wars.
The use of poison gas had also required a new kind of protective mask. One of the first was developed by JS Haldane, the father of JBS Haldane, the scientist who came to India towards the end of his life and helped develop scientific institutions here. In Samanth Subramanian’s excellent new biography of the younger Haldane, A Dominant Character, he writes of how the father used the (very willing) son as a guinea pig, almost suffocating him from exposure to vapours as he perfected a practical gas mask that could absorb them.
These lead to a whole new type of protective masks, against bioweapons and radiation, all the terrible new creations of warfare. But it was the second event from 1918-1920 that links most closely to our virus driven demand. This was the great global influenza epidemic that is estimated to have killed far more people than died in the first World War – 17 million just in India, which was five per cent of our population at that time.
There had been global pandemics before, but this one was made worse by new transport systems, fuelled by the demands of war, and also by the fact that it was caused by a virus, a poorly understood entity at that time. Doctors wasted time looking for a bacterium, as in bubonic plague. By the time the airborne nature of the disease spreading was understood, millions had died.
In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney’s history of the epidemic she notes that by 1918 “the wearing of a layered gauze mask over the mouth was recommended – and in Japan this probably marked the beginning of the practice of mask-wearing to protect others from one’s own germs – but health officials disagreed as to whether the masks actually reduced transmission.”
It was only by 1920, when American cities implemented preventive measures that included mask wearing that their value was established. A hundred years on from then we are learning the value, and many meanings, of face masks all over again.