The history and future of face masks
Since the first wave of COVID-19, face masks have become an essential addition to our everyday lives and one of the trendiest accessories in the fashion world. Here, we discover their origins and functionality, and explore how this new normal will evolve the once-humble face mask.
Up until the beginning of 2020, it was quite unusual to see face masks outside of the operating rooms in a hospital — in Western countries, at least. You might see the odd commuter wearing one on the train or around busy city streets during the peak of flu season, but sightings were a rarity. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
By March 2020, shelves were cleared of medical masks (along with almost every non-perishable food source), healthcare workers were reusing disposable masks for fear of running out, and the USA was experiencing a shortage of medical and N95 masks due to global demand. Hospital and research facilities worldwide reported bulk theft of medical masks. They were the latest health essential, and it wasn’t long before they became a fashion accessory.
How do masks work?
Since March 2020, most of Australia has been masking up each time we step into crowded public spaces. But how do face masks actually work? Well, in its most basic form, a face mask covering the mouth and nose blocks viral respiratory droplets from becoming airborne. A study in Nature Medicine found that a coronavirus actually attaches to proteins in the nasal passage, so covering the nose is essential to preventing the transmission of the virus. But there are varying types and kinds of face masks.
We’ve already seen a glimpse of the future of mask design … PPE has had a serious glow-up.
Standard surgical masks are made from bacteria-filtering fabric such as polystyrene or polyethylene and constructed with three or four layers including double filtration layers as well as a nose wire to fit firmly on the face. Respiratory N95 masks take this model up a level, with a tight-fitting face seal have been found to filter out 95 per cent of the tiniest of airborne particles including dust, mist and fumes.
You’ve no doubt been gifted or purchased a homemade mask, but the efficacy of these is highly debated. A report by Australia’s Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG) noted that both homemade cloth masks and surgical masks reduced the number of airborne microorganisms, but the surgical masks proved to be three times more effective than homemade masks — although they need to be fitted properly to work.
But fear not; the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that while medical masks should be used by healthcare workers, people with flu-like symptoms, those over 60 and those with medical conditions, non-medical fabric masks can be used by the general public.
Masks through the ages
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, the only times we saw surgical masks were in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries and on medical dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy. But masks for respiratory health date back about 2000 years to when Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder donned a face covering made of animal-bladder skin while crushing toxic minerals to use for pigment in ornaments and jewellery. Silk masks were worn by the Chinese emperor’s servants in the 13th century while they were preparing and serving food to avoid contamination. Even Leonardo da Vinci masked up with a water-soaked cloth while painting to prevent himself inhaling toxic chemicals in the paint.
Europe’s 14th-century Black Death epidemic sparked widespread wearing of face coverings, and with the next outbreak in the 17th century came the invention of the now iconic beak mask by a French doctor. It was believed that diseases were spread through miasmas, or bad smells, so the beak of the mask was filled with fragrant herbs, spices and dried flowers to ward off disease.
But we can credit the modern medical mask to Malayan public-health specialist Wu Lien-the, who developed a multilayered mask from cotton and gauze with secure ties when the Manchurian plague broke out in northern China in 1911. It probably comes as no surprise that Wu’s insistence on wearing masks to limit contagion was met with resistance; that is until a colleague who refused to don a mask succumbed to the plague.
Authorities experienced the same resistance during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918–19, where masks were enforced during the second wave of the pandemic (déjà vu anyone?). While some were decorating their masks with everything from Snugglepot & Cuddlepie to darkly comic skull and crossbones designs, others were cutting holes in their masks so they could smoke easily, and San Francisco’s Anti-Mask League, whose members included doctors and city officials, was born. Much like the anti-maskers of today, these “mask slackers” or “Sanitary Spartacans”, as they were not-so-fondly referred to, took to the streets to protest the mask ordinance — which was repealed less than a month later, albeit not because of the League’s efforts.
While it took some time for us to adjust to wearing masks every day, many countries have been accustomed to this for decades. In Japan, wearing a mask is essential etiquette if you’re sick or have allergies. And if you need to blow your nose — forget it! Sniff as much as you like, but only pull the tissues once you’re in a restroom. Heavy smog and pollution in China has led to widespread use of masks for people going about their day-to-day lives.
While it took some time for us to adjust to wearing masks every day, many countries have been accustomed to this for decades.
Although reusable masks made from natural fibres were the way for much of the 20th century both inside and outside of the operating room, by the 1960s masks were predominately disposable and made from synthetic materials. There have been plenty more upgrades, including N95 masks and even masks designed for those who wear glasses, with plenty more futuristic models yet to be released.
But one of the most efficient designs yet are masks to help those who are deaf and hearing-impaired to communicate. These masks now come in a variety of styles and designs, all with a transparent plastic window over the mouth that allows one to lip-read while the wearer is speaking.
So how do face masks affect human communication? Well, facial gestures and expressions make up 55 per cent of our communication, and studies have found that interpersonal communication was heavily impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while our faces are integral in conveying our emotions, other cues like tone of voice, hand gestures and body language are just as important. So while wearing a mask, you may need to talk a little louder and slower and pay more attention to body language to adapt to this new norm.
Functionality or fashion statement?
Fashion weeks around the world have dubbed the once-humble face mask the hottest accessory of the season. Since pop sensation Billie Eilish rocked an embellished mesh Gucci mask (which has been declared completely ineffective against fending off airborne bacteria by experts), alternative variations of the masks have been seen on designer runways, influencer socials and red carpets from Sydney to Milan.
Some designers went for a low-key approach to masks that blended in with the sartorial flair of the season, while others like Christian Siriano took the chance to get political in the lead-up to the 2020 US election, sending models down the runway of his New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer show with masks stamped with “VOTE” — and haute couture dresses to match. This was mirrored on the streets during the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Protesters and allies across America donned black masks emblazoned with the words “I CAN’T BREATHE” and the BLM (Black Lives Matter) slogan to show their support for the movement. These masks became a staple for tennis superstar Naomi Osaka, who regularly hit the courts around the globe with a BLM-inspired mask.
For the majority of fashion retailers, though, their goal was to create masks to complement even the most luxurious of couture — and they certainly did just that. On a recent episode of the ABC’s The Mix, Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan says, “I always joke that fashion finds a way, and in this case, fashion has found a way to make an uncomfortable accessory as pleasing to the eye as possible.”
Louis Vuitton’s LV Shield Visor, with an RRP of A$1350, sold out almost as soon as it became available in Australia. But according to physician and journalist Dr Norman Swan, the shield will protect the eyes but is essentially useless at preventing the spread of germs if not used with a filtered face mask. So if luxury fashion is your thing, look no further than Israeli-based brand Yvel’s 18-carat white gold mask, encrusted with 3600 diamonds and fitted with an N99 filter. It’ll cost you a cool A$2 million — but you can’t put a price on fashionable hygiene and safety, right?!
In festival culture, fashion and face masks have been synonymous for quite some time. At music festivals such as Coachella and the Byron Bay-based Splendour in the Grass, facial accessories from bandanas to bejewelled chain masks are hard to miss among the crowds. Whether to protect one from desert dust storms or add a statement finish to their specifically curated outfit, masks have certainly become a mainstay in festival fashion.
But if you, like us, prefer a more low-key and practical approach to masking, there are plenty of home-grown brands that offer sartorially safe (and sustainably made) masks that won’t break the bank. Look to labels like Kloke, Clothing the Gap, Romance Was Born, Arnhem and local sellers on Etsy. From silk to cotton, linen and even recycled ocean plastic, there are plenty of affordably safe options for masks.
While single-use surgical masks may seem convenient at the time, they’ve already made a huge impact on the environment. Discarded masks are washing up on beaches and uninhabited islands around the world. According to a report from OceansAsia, “From a global production projection of 52 billion masks for 2020, we estimate that 1.56 billion masks will enter our oceans in 2020, amounting to between 4,680 and 6,240 metric tonnes of plastic pollution. These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems.”
To combat this waste, French start-up Plaxtil has launched a mask recycling program around the country, and has since recycled over 100,000 masks. The masks are quarantined for four days before being crushed, passed through a UV tunnel for decontamination, then remade into COVID-19 protection essentials including mask fasteners, door openers and protective visors.
“These masks will take as long as 450 years to break down and all the while serve as a source of micro plastic and negatively impact marine wildlife and ecosystems.”
Belgium-based design studio WeWantMore has also taken to refashioning masks from previously disposable items. The studio has been transforming pre-loved Adidas and Nike sneakers into face masks that offer some protection, but are primarily designed to “highlight humanity’s ability to adapt,” as told to Forbes by creative director Ruud Belmans. “It merely shows how reimagination and creativity can put a positive twist on even the hardest of times.”
Closer to home, carbon-conscious brand AusAir launched their filtered face mask in 2017 in response to growing concerns of air pollutants from wildfires. Their reusable masks offer a sleek design that boasts two-way filtration and comes with a copper carry bag that deactivates bacteria — you can even choose native botanical-infused filters (maybe the beak mask inventor was onto something after all).
So what’s next for face masks? Well, we’ve already seen a glimpse of the future of mask design thanks to companies like Aō Air and Honeywell: PPE has had a serious glow up. Aō Air’s Atmōs mask is currently being developed in New Zealand and is one of the sleekest solutions we’ve seen, with a minimalist clear window design that doesn’t hinder communication, flexible fit and patented PositivAir™ technology for the cleanest, coolest breathing experience yet.
The Xupermask, musician will.i.am’s latest venture with Honeywell, is definitely one to look out for. As a smart mask, the device incorporates noise-cancelling headphones, LED lights, a rechargeable battery and Bluetooth capability. It’s certainly not the most subtle of designs, but its cutting-edge design puts it in a category of its own. And there’s plenty more about to hit the market: LG’s mask with a built-in inverter fan, a full-faced Daft Punk-esque mask from Blanc Masks, and the Razer mask from Project Hazel that comes with a charger equipped with a bacteria-killing UV light.
Whether masks become the “new normal” in a post-COVID world is yet to be determined. But they have certainly become a much-loved (and essential) accessory around the world, putting creativity on display. In Italy, engineer Mario Milanesio added a 3D-printed respiratory valve to his snorkelling mask; and Australia’s own Todd McKenny’s mask brand has designed a 3D breast mask to raise money for breast cancer awareness. Are these masks comfortably wearable? Debatable. But no doubt they will go down in history and perhaps even be passed down the family line as a relic of times past.