August 14, 2020

In these pandemic times, the face mask has become a ubiquitous symbol of our battle against Covid-19. While wearing one is an essential component for our survival and to slow the spread of the virus, the fashion world has turned it into a trend—and a statement piece. Eschewing surgical masks, international designers have modified and created embellished versions featuring their sartorial savoir-faire. Kosovo-born, NYC-based designer Lirika Matoshi’s whimsical face masks are furnished with the brand’s iconic red strawberries, while Ukrainian label Juliya Kros has quirky details like zippers down the middle of a mesh overlay to suit the avant-garde. Over in Bangkok, designer Voravaj Varazatiravatt makes prêt-à-porter masks with crystal and beaded adornments that take almost 37 hours to make. 

Whether it is more important to showcase your personality with a patterned fabric face mask or to protect yourself in an N95, I’ve started to appreciate the anonymity that this new implement has now afforded me. A uniformity that allows me to melt into the faceless masses. I no longer worry about friends taking less-than-flattering videos or pictures of me and uploading them online, I walk past acquaintances unrecognised, without having to engage in pleasantries and I can finally embrace the no make-up look. 

Like the Venetians in the 15th century, the freedom of anonymity was the main draw of their ostentatious masked balls as attendees could immerse themselves in the hedonistic pleasures of life without tarnishing their reputation. There were also masked carnivals and parades for the common folk to be uninhibited, which stripped away any form of self-consciousness. In today’s modern context, masking up avoids the embarrassment of passing gas in public, the awkwardness of approaching a stranger, and even the judgement for having acne-ridden complexion.

These past few months of mask-wearing have given me the courage to display aberrant behaviour. I finally understood why Novelist John Updike coined the term Maskenfreiheit, meaning “the freedom conferred by masks” because he couldn’t be held accountable for his actions. I could brazenly ask for extra condiments when ordering food without feeling paiseh, laugh a little louder with my friends without anyone identifying me as a public nuisance, and even pick my nose when the urge arose. About a week ago, I crossed paths with an old acquaintance and although our eyes briefly met, I was convinced that I was unrecognisable behind my fluffy surgical mask. So I scurried away in the opposite direction, to avoid making small talk. Seconds later, an Instagram DM popped up saying: “Did you just walk past me?” I sighed, maybe my mask wasn’t a “protective veil” after all.

It was probably my eyes that gave me away. For many years, society and culture have emphasised the importance of eye contact because it is one of the best ways to make a person feel more connected to you. According to a study by Yale University psychologists, most people intuitively feel as if their “self” or their soul resides in their eyes. They are supposedly the most honest part of the face—revealing our inner thoughts as well as our emotional state. In Save Them All: A Novel by K. O. Bailey, the author wrote that the eyes “allowed you to get a sense of the soul that resided in another person, a thing, a place”—a keyhole to a person’s true personality.

While I always hear people complaining about “maskne” or how hard it is to breath wearing one, the act of mass masking is, to me, a gesture of solidarity, a duty to the community and a show of commitment that every one of us needs to do our part to help overcome this devastating pandemic. Even after Covid-19 is over, I am still tempted to put on a mask in public. Apart from hygiene, who knows if the next deadly virus is just around the corner?