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Five face masks that went down in ‘fashion history legend’, long before coronavirus

With mask-wearing compulsory in Melbourne, and encouraged in many other parts of Australia, many people are using their masks to make a fashion statement.

You can find all sorts of masks for sale online — sequinned masks, masks made from upcycled vintage fabrics and novelty masks emblazoned with slogans such as “will remove for wine”.

But this isn’t the first time masks have had a moment.

Lydia Edwards, a fashion historian from Edith Cowan University, took ABC RN’s Life Matters through some of Western society’s more memorable masks.

The vizard

The vizard was a mask worn by upper-class women in Europe during the 16th century.

“This is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever come across in fashion history,” Dr Edwards says.

Upper-class women wore a vizard to protect their faces while travelling on horseback.(Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain, Author Unknown)

Women wore the mask to preserve their complexion while travelling.

Pale skin was fashionable for the upper classes, so if you got a tan while travelling on horseback you risked people thinking you had been working outdoors like a commoner.

“Upper-class women who wanted to keep their complexions very unblemished and clear and pearly white would wear these as a fashionable necessity,” Dr Edwards says.Listen to the podcastLife Matters is here to help you get a handle on all the important stuff: love, sex, health, fitness, parenting, career, finances and family.

The vizard covered the whole face with a slit for the nose and small holes for the eyes.

Vizards would often not include a hole for the mouth, as the mask was generally held in place by the wearer clenching their teeth over a button on the inside.

This meant the woman wearing the vizard could not talk to anyone during their journey.

“The whole thing is very elite because travelling itself was a luxury,” Dr Edwards says.

She says because the vizard was designed for the elite it “was not worn by many people at all”.

“But because it’s so bizarre it has gone down in fashion history legend.”

Plague doctor mask

Dr Edwards says the exact origin of the plague doctor mask is still debated.

“But we know that during one of the [bubonic] plague outbreaks — probably the slightly later one, not necessarily the early mediaeval one — doctors wore these masks with a long nose shaped like a beak,” she says.

Coloured engraving of a 17th century plague doctor wearking beaked mask, gloves, cloak and brimmed hat .
Plague doctors kept sweet-smelling herbs in the beak of their masks.(Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain)

Before doctors understood germs, they believed the Black Death was transmitted by bad smells known as “miasma”.

Some people carried small bunches of flowers during the plague, which they put to their faces to ward off dangerous smells.

The hollowed beak of the plague doctor mask provided a hands-free way for physicians to hold these flowers near their noses.

“The idea was to put sweet-smelling herbs in the tip to remove the stench of disease, but not so close to the wearer’s nose that they were overwhelming and overpowering,” Dr Edwards says.

A photo of a woman wearing a black beaked mask covering her whole face, with curled eyebrows stitched above the eye holes.
Life Matters listener Cyndy Kitt Vogelsang sent this picture of her take on a plague mask.(Facebook: Cyndy Kitt Vogelsang)

The mask was so distinctive it became iconic.

It was used for the character of the doctor in commedia dell’arte, a type of theatre originating from Italy where actors wore masks to denote different characters. It’s also one of many masks worn during the Carnival of Venice.

More recently the mask has been adopted by comic book characters, cosplayers and Halloween revellers.

The domino mask

Speaking of comic book costumes, the stereotypical superhero mask covering the top of the face is known as a domino mask.

“It was originally part of a broader costume associated with the Venice Carnival, but it came to be worn in the 17th century by some women in certain parts of Europe, particularly the Netherlands,” Dr Edwards says.

A man wearing black clothes, black gloves, a black bandana and a black domino mask scales a cliff.
The Dread Pirate Roberts was an advocate of masks in The Princess Bride.(Disney: Promotional Still)

It was worn by the elite to protect their skin against the elements, much like the vizard, and was often worn with a hood.

“But it also played into that idea of disguise in society and of keeping yourself modest and away from prying eyes,” Dr Edwards says.

The word domino comes from the Latin word ‘dominus’, meaning lord or master, and was also used to refer to a short veil that stopped at the nose.

“In the 18th century there were cloaks that were called dominoes that would often be worn with the mask,” Dr Edwards says.

The game dominos is thought to have been named for the tiles’ resemblance to the hooded, masked costumes worn at the Venice Carnival and masquerade balls.

Dr Edwards says the domino mask may have become popular because it’s not as threatening or unnerving as full-faced masks.

“Maybe that’s why it has been adopted as a kind of superhero costume, you know — it’s something that creates anonymity but in a more unthreatening way.”

According to the Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie The Princess Bride, the mask is also “terribly comfortable” and likely to be worn by everyone in the future.

Motoring masks

Early in the 20th century, as automobiles became more available, motoring became a fashionable pastime among those who could afford it.

A print advertisement from 1907 showing a selection of goggles, most of which would mask much of the face.
Goggles aimed at early motoring enthusiasts masked much of the face.(The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, And Tilden Foundations)

But these early motor vehicles often didn’t have doors, roofs or even windscreens.

This created a market for a new style of protective facewear.

Aviator-style goggles were advertised to men, some of which covered both the eyes and nose.

“Men would often wear these with a peaked cap drawn very low over the face to protect from fumes,” Dr Edwards says.

“A large part of your face would be masked if you were driving a car in about 1910.”

Spanish Flu masks

Black and white photo of a man wearing a suit, tie, boater hat and a protective facemask bearing skull and crossbones.
The 1918 flu pandemic inspired some humorous takes on the protective facemask.(Flickr: State Library Of NSW)

Melburnians may be putting their personal stamp on their protective masks, but they’re certainly not the first to do so.

Dr Edwards says people did much the same thing during the 1918 flu pandemic.

She says there were “all kinds of masks” available at the time.

“They had very darkly comic masks with skulls and crossbones on them,” Dr Edwards says.

“They also had ones for children that had pictures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.

“I think it was a way, again, of injecting some humour and fun into obviously a very serious and distressing time.”

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