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.
Complicating the mask’s status as a culture-war lightning rod is that mask-wearing is often not so simply divided on partisan lines. While many of the protesters demanding states reopen are gathering sans masks, many are in fact wearing them—or even using the canvas the mask offers as another space for political messaging. When Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for not wearing a mask during a visit to the Mayo Clinic last week, he said he didn’t need one, because he is tested daily. He wore one later that week during a visit to a General Motors plant, and apologized over the weekend. And yet Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a lead member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, does not wear a mask—citing the exact reasons Pence offered. “The major reason to wear a face mask is to protect you from infecting you,” Fauci at a White House press conference in early April, when a reporter asked about his lack of a mask. “I had my test yesterday and it’s negative.” The inconsistency of wearers’ behavior makes it seem less like a nonpartisan health issue and more like a matter of personal politics—allowing anyone to project their own symbolism onto the mask.
Within these ideological factions, too, fissures are already emerging: a Twitter thread tackled the problematic nature of “fashion” masks, including J. Crew’s seersucker take and Alice & Olivia designer Stacey Bendet’s cartoon-print cotton version—the idea being that utilitarian garments are so sacred that attempts to embellish them are expressions of capitalism working at its latest. Nevermind that fashion and retail are struggling to survive, and cloth masks are the government-advised consumer alternative to the personal protective equipment that, the CDC has emphasized, should be reserved for medical workers on the front line. Even as the mask becomes more a part of everyday life, the debate on whether it “should” be a “fashion statement” seems unlikely to resolve any time soon—although politicians and activists from both parties are already making it into a statement of ideology, itself a kind of fashion.
The mask has gone through so many iterations over the past six weeks—armor for the medical community, a symbol of our collective efforts to protect one another, an object of faddishness in the appropriative hands of fashion designers—that the cycle of fashion itself is short-circuiting, creating an explosion of chaotic and often divergent meanings. Usually these sorts of changes take years or at least months to codify—the emergence of the Fred Perry polo as a pseudo-official uniform of the contemporary white supremacist movement was decades in the making, for example, and even the MAGA hat was treated as a dopey joke by people across the political spectrum for several months after Trump, then an unlikely Republican presidential candidate with a bad branding habit, began wearing them.
Democrats have long embraced the performative possibilities of clothes, from Jackie Kennedy’s all-encompassing American interpretation of Europe’s bourgeois salon culture and fashion, to Michelle Obama’s careful calibration of affordable cardigans mixed with goddess-like gowns. It’s all about staging a didactic production. A recent New York Times Magazine story about Joe Biden’s presidential campaign cites the emphasis his team puts on “modeling” good behavior, which infectious disease experts say is essential to quelling the spread of a pandemic—and necessary to establishing the moral high ground.
But the modern Republican party knows that communicating with clothes can be much simpler. Plenty of conservatives prefer literal statement garments: in contrast to the narrative glamour of her Democratic forebears, whom she is said to admire, Melania just wears the jacket with the message printed on it. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump reelection campaign had ordered red Trump-branded masks, to be given away at rallies, or offered as a gift in exchange for a donation. Fashion is often considered a creative pursuit, an industry that leans left—and yet it is Trump’s campaign that seems to more intuitively understand clothing’s political possibilities. With our political vocabulary now dominated by “the curve” and “test and trace,” merch has become its own lingua franca.
Originally Appeared on GQ