Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
(Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist)
Oscar Wilde, the flamboyant Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and critic of the 19th century, famed for his radical arguments on aestheticism, adored the subject of costumes, accessories and masks that he believed undresses the hidden persona. As he expressed this irony in his rousing essay:
the costume (as the mask) as a method of expressing directly to the audience the character of a person on his entrance…can combine in one exquisite presentation the illusion of actual life with the wonder of the unreal world…It is a growth, an evolution, and a most important, perhaps the most important, sign of the manners, customs and mode of life of each century.
(Oscar Wilde, Intentions/The Truth of Masks. A Note on Illusion)
In Wilde’s response to the opponents of archaeological materials in the form of masks as costumes:
to attack it for any reason is foolish; one might just as well speak disrespectfully of the equator…for it is neither good nor bad, but a fact simply. Its value depends entirely on how it is used.
(Oscar Wilde, Intentions/The Truth of Masks. A Note on Illusion)
The mask, therefore, just as any loose accessory protecting the human skin, “replaces the concept of an integrated authentic self”, and secretly becomes the “individual’s persona’s primary weapon against the tyranny of the normal.” (Heather Marcovitch, The Art of the Pose: Oscar Wilde's Performance Theory).
Other critics have also interpreted the influence of the mask in Wilde’s eyes to cultivate the:
ability to be ‘at home’, in his costume, as in his role…to step outside themselves, to impersonate through the impersonality of a unified aesthetic effect. Action, gesture, and voice become the media of revelation.
(Anne Varty, A Preface to Oscar Wilde)
If we should be guided cautiously by this ideology, just how candidly implicit can mask-wearing be especially in these times of instability when the doubtful direction of our lives itself accompanies the uncertainty of our facial expressions camouflaged indeliberately by a piece of fabric? Do we hide in guarded anonymity, or by Wilde’s theory, conversely expose our inner intent more than we could ever do without a facial covering?
Over the past six months of pandemic survival, the world has been witnessing a greater proportion of Western (more than Asian) stigma of mask-wearing, despite masks having existed as early as the 16th century as an essential element of Western medical practice for disease prevention. Towards the end of the 19th century, Western surgeons had used gauze masks in the operating room, and ordinary citizens had accustomed themselves to wearing them in the streets, inside public buildings and mass transportation during the outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918. In Japan, for instance, references were made to masks worn by Japanese miners in the 19th century and during the Manchurian Pneumonic Plague between 1910 and 1911 although this was not heavily publicized until the Taisho era (1912-1926) with the appearance of "factory masks" (called such because they acted as dust shields used in factories).
The first mask was known to be made of brass wire mesh with a cloth as a filter attached to it for dust protection. After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, Uchiyama Take Shoten Company manufactured the Kotobuki Mask, which propelled an entirely novel generation of mask-wearing. Following this trend, an innovative form of the Obishi mask replaced the wire mesh with celluloid, and the filter, originally in black satin, was changed to velveteen or leather. By around 1948, frameless fabrics and the flat gauze type mask became more prevalent as today. During every flu and pollen season thereon, masks in Japan have become a common protective gear that serves dual purposes: to minimize the risk of contamination from another person and to avoid transmission of an infection, which in practice, has maintained the order of social etiquette.
Yet, why has there been an overtly aggressive resistance against mask-wearing especially in many Western countries? The COVID-19 epidemic mirrors interestingly parallel reactions in the U.S. during the Spanish flu when the Mask Order was devised for protection, but then blasted repugnantly by violators who viewed mask-wearing as unjust defiance of the “ideology of liberalism, the belief in freedom of individuals”. To some, masks articulate a sensitive political and racial statement associated with the Muslim niqab, Afghan burqa, Ku Klux Klan, or other vigilante organization; therefore, instigating a mood of fear, terror, distrust, punishment, and even law offense. After all, thieves generally conceal themselves with masks, and in theatre masks are an artistic disguise of the inner truth that may be immoral or tainted by jealousy, sadness, conceit, anger or deception; while in religious rituals, reassure protection against evil. Some beliefs proclaimed that masks could change people’s personalities inadvertently and impersonate true nature. In Medieval Europe, warriors were clad in heavy armor masks, which also symbolized shame when a sin was committed.
Behavioral implications have branded the mask with an ulterior sense of control over an invisible threat that is deemed uncontrollable, and empowerment that induces vulnerability on someone who, otherwise, does not wear a mask. Some theories profess that masks provoke awkward personal barriers or a precarious trigger of separation between societies that belong and do not belong to the norm. A non-mask-wearer can be ostracized profusely for his willful exercise of freedom. Unnecessary prejudice and violence have spurted as a result of this. One hovering notion of mask-wearing is the bleary atmosphere of anonymity, as though a mask-wearer presents himself intentionally as indiscernible where face-to-face communication is usually based on the language of the eyes and the mouth. Instances in China have proven the incapacity of CCTV cameras to conduct facial recognition successfully for mask-wearers in public. However, some Japanese enjoy the subtle privacy masks offer, which reciprocates their timid nature conveniently. On the other hand, children who are too young to grasp verbal language, and thus, depend fundamentally on the adults’ facial gestures for communication, are at a loss in front of covered faces. For societies that abide by solid democracy, it may be plausible, perhaps, why masks are regarded with so much livid suspicion.
Recently, there has been a widespread clamor about physical discomfort due to moisture and difficult breathing when wearing masks, or perhaps, masks running out of stock in the sales market has simply placed a lot of people in a restless dilemma over a “forced regulation” that they could not freely accept may actually be the social icon of the future. Addressing the inevitable shortage of masks, many talented fashionistas and creators have found the constructive motivation to handmade masks, whether for personal use, donation or retail. The new domestic skill also renders the wearer his personal identity and a sense of resigned acceptance in conceptualizing the mask as an avant-garde dress accessory, consequently allowing it to become an inherent part of the self as opposed to it hanging as a foreign microbe of fear.
The fad of handweaving masks has gone hip and trendy that a world competition “Mask Design Challenge 2020” has been embarked to encourage the innovation of mask design during this frozen time, and to hone aesthetic skills, otherwise previously undiscovered, during the quarantine. The idea is also to minimize waste (overdisposal of surgical masks and use of recycled fabric), support health workers who are in dire need of them and add color and pattern in style for positive vibes against an already battered social and economic life.
In Japan, where masks function customarily as routine household items, readily worn by all ages during the flu and pollen season, handmade versions suddenly front public media sporadically, even among government officials. Hiroko Hirose, textile designer, has come up with her original hand-dyed masks (in Katazome print, which is a Japanese method of dyeing fabrics using a resist paste applied through a stencil), and utilizing Japanese and other Asian textiles such as from India and Myanmar. They are 3-4 layered cotton, and woodblock dyed by herself in indigo blue, natural dyed pink, grey, wine and varied colors, some in exotic Asian patterns. She maintains a high level of craftsmanship by attaching pocket filters for further protection, tucks on the front and a box pleat at the back, and using a nose wire and 100% elastic bands.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to make my mood brighter and share this with people I care for. I focus on the texture and color by creating overlapping transparent fabrics. People are now imbued with hygiene and think more consciously about how to interact with each other. Although there are differences in customs and cultures worldwide, I think that some people will continue to wear masks even if they are not required to as some may want to look fashionable and luxurious with them. It wouldn't be strange for a woman to spend her money on a mask, rather than for lipstick and blush-on.
Eliza Wong, creative director, and jazz music journalist also residing in Tokyo has created a fun mask collection using Japan-themed fabrics in three layers of non-allergic Japanese cotton, with a thin double cotton gauze inner layer. There are openings for inserting a filter paper, a metal strip on the nose area for adjustment, and string made with extra soft Japanese elastic yarn, comfortable enough to wear for long hours.
I live in old downtown Tokyo and love Japanese festivals, sumo, Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and the Showa culture, which all gave me my inspiration for my masks. My basic concept is to make people think that wearing masks is not a scary thing, but more like wearing a statement T-shirt, that could tell something about one’s personality, or what one wants to express. It can be cool, something to laugh about, or a lucky charm. The COVID-19 breakout has made more people realize that wearing masks can protect oneself against breathing virus droplets, and not just against sickness. For me, it is like opening an umbrella to protect oneself from the sun. It may be odd for some people to wear masks regularly, but we should respect others if they need to use them. They become a ‘just-in-case’ accessory inside our bags. With the paper mask shortage, fabric masks can save costs, are worry-free vs. panic shopping, and can save the environment.
Other innovators are looking dynamically into anti-viral materials that contain ingredients for disinfection and can be integrated with the tissue layer. Some envision the attachment of sensors that monitor the level of air pollution or strapless masks with special and reusable skin adhesives. One idea proposes electronic textile to sterilize the mask surface against bacteria.
Whatever the purpose masks reiterate beyond health protection, the defamed impulse of fright, racial segregation or even condescension that they had been conceived to express should all now be futile stains of psychological impasse. Having subjected ourselves to restrained self-confinement and painful resistance against physical proximity for months on end may regrettably ignite prolonged distrust or insecurity when “normal” public life resumes its position. Whether masks duly compensate for such social apprehension or simply remind us of proper sanitation, they must surely impel the undermined virtue of respect and the neglected civic duty of social order and humanitarian care for one another. Further, deciphering sincerity in language may rise to an unforeseen elevated dimension, to be interpreted by the expression of the eyes and vocal texture, rather than the plain movement of the lips. Perhaps, the future apparel would transform into dress assembles that include a stylish mask to match, in the same fashion as a matching hat, handkerchief, or scarf. For as long as the mask stays inside our drawers, our human skin could no longer feel shamefully alienated towards it. Like Oscar Wilde, we would be led naturally to believe that having it on, like a pullover in winter, may unconsciously speak a thousand words about our inmost being more than we would ever be willing to admit.