Has any garment in history ever been through so much, and so quickly, as the mask?
In early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were assuring American citizens that a mask worn in public could do little to halt the spread of coronavirus, and that Food and Drug Administration-approved face coverings, like the coveted N95 respirator and standard surgical-grade masks, should be reserved for medical workers. Still, masks remained a scarce commodity—so much so that fashion designers stumbled into making them to combat the shortage, becoming unlikely heroes of the moment.
Then, just over a month ago, the White House, acting on the advice of a Centers for Disease Control memo, reversed its position and announced that cloth masks, or face coverings of some kind, were indeed effective prevention against the spread of coronavirus—although, as President Donald Trump emphasized in almost the same breath, “it is going to be a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it.” Yet in some states and cities, face coverings are now mandated by the government; about 10 days after President Trump’s announcement, New York governor Andrew Cuomo required that they be worn where social distancing is not possible.
In the month since President Trump’s pseudo-declaration, the mask has become politically charged, Politico reported last week, a trophy for “smug liberals” and a weapon for “reckless Republicans,” and “the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.” That divide may have become fatal: police in Michigan are investigating whether the death of a security guard at a Family Dollar was related to a fight over a customer’s refusal to wear a mask, MLive reported over the weekend.
As a protective accessory—a piece of medical equipment whose efficacy is backed by science—the mask should be one of the few objects in American culture to exist on a plane above politics. Most American airlines have announced that passengers must wear masks; in Asian countries, masks have been a part of daily life for decades, with fashion interpretations by Bape and other streetwear brands a standard accessory offering. In Germany, widely considered a model for combating the pandemic, compulsory mask-wearing has been crucial to stymying the virus’s spread. And yet in America, the mask is becoming perhaps the most controversial garment since Donald Trump’s campaign introduced the fat red Make America Great Again hat in 2016. On the right, Politico’s Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman wrote, “the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus,” though public citizens forgoing a mask, as several Republicans did in late April while voting on the latest relief package, claim no such messaging. (“Nooo, nooo!” Republican congressman Ralph Abraham said, when asked whether his mask-free status was ideological.) And social media, from Twitter to the neighborhood networking platform Nextdoor, has become a forum for shaming private citizens who aren’t wearing masks.