A Mask – the New Black?

The plague doctor outfit was an iconic look of the 17th century and became a staple of the Italian commedia dell’arte and Venetian Carnival

The origin of wearing masks to protect against disease dates back to the mid 17th-century when doctors dressed against the bubonic plague in outfits that made them look like giant crows.

The original idea for the ensemble is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, physician to King Louis XIII. He described his plague outfit as a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, hat and gloves of kid leather, and a mask with a beak shaped nose filled with theriac (a compound of herbs including myrrh and cinnamon), with a hole on each side so that with every breath, the sweet scent of the herbs filled the lungs.

Doctor’s plague mask, c. 1650, Yorkshire Museum

Before germ theory, physicians thought the plague was spread through poisoned air and that sweet and pungent scents could purify plague-ridden air. The plague was actually caused by bacteria that was transmitted through flea bites or the inhalation of infectious droplets from sneezing or coughing patients. Although the science behind the beak-like mask was faulty, it would have offered some minimal protection as it stopped doctors from touching their face and the entirely covered body would reduce the possibility of flea bites. 

Manchurian doctors began wearing surgical face masks improved by the addition of extra padding during the 1911 Manchurian plague.

With a better understanding of germs and disease, cloth face masks were first worn by doctors in the late 1890s to prevent surgeries from becoming infected. In the fall of 1910 a plague broke out in Manchuria that had a high and fast mortality rate. A Chinese doctor by the name of Lien-teh Wu determined that the plague was spread by air-born bacteria and developed a more sophisticated face mask consisting of many layers of gauze with a tight fit to the face — he developed a respirator that was effective against the spread of disease.

Telephone operators in High River, Alberta, 1918

In 1918, masks were used by civilians to prevent the spread of the Spanish Influenza. However, pictorial evidence often shows that most people wore loosely fitted masks and often incorrectly, that offered little or no protection, as made evident by the flu ultimately killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide. What would have been effective were gas masks, made for soldiers on the front in World War I, as well as for civilians in World War II. Gas masks were respirators that filtered every inhalation by creating an airtight seal to the face, but they were uncomfortable to wear, and expensive to produce.

Civilian gas masks, World War II, England

The use of face masks disappeared in the West, although in the East, masks continued to be worn in crowded urban areas out of politeness to avoid sneezing on others. In an effort to create a face mask that was more efficient at filtering air but more comfortable to wear than a gas mask, a respirator was developed for single-use occupational safety and health. The N95 was developed by 3M in 1972 primarily for coal miners and other workers who were exposed to fine dust that could lead to health issues. The respirators circled back to medical use in the 1990s to protect immunocompromised patients, and then more broadly with the the outbreak of SARS in 2002.

In the last decade face masks were used as protection from smog in cities throughout Asia. They were also adopted by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in 2019 as a tool for disguising identities from closed-circuit TV cameras. When the government tried to ban them, they became a political symbol. 

QIAODAN Yin Peng Sportswear collection, 2014

In the last few years some brands, including Fendi and Gucci, started making designer masks. Billie Eilish wore one to the Grammys on January 26, 2020 just as the first reports of the Coronavirus were making news. Masks became the fashion accessory at the Paris and Milan fashion shows this year where they were handed out to guests, and couture versions appeared on some catwalks

Billie Eilish at the Grammys 2020 wearing a decorative face mask

Despite the recent necessity, it will be interesting to see if mask fashions have any lasting power. The look is unsettling, reminiscent of a scene from some movie about a contagion that creates zombies. It is alienating and unsocial – the same reason many dislike the face-covering scarves intended to isolate Islamic women from attention. Time will tell but I wouldn’t buy stock…

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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