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The Fascinating History of the Mask and Its Influence on Fashion

If you've been outside, you've seen them every where. Some are worn for protection, others are worn in part as a fashion statement, or in alliance with traditions - but most are worn because it's required. Regardless of the reasoning, there's been a debate brewing over whether face masks help in keeping the wearer protected, or if it's more about the act of wearing the mask itself.

This video is not about the effectiveness of masks or whether you should wear one or not - instead, it's exploring the traditions, the trends and the medical history of the mask.


The face mask seems like a fairly new phenomena, but in actuality, variations of the mask have been worn since before the 17th century. From full ceremonial masks to those worn to aid in medical procedures and protection - the mask has seen many transformations over the years, crossing the lines between functional and fashionable.

In a traditional sense, the Mask is a form of disguise or concealment, usually worn over or in front of the face to hide the identity of a person and by its own features to establish another being. This essential characteristic of hiding and revealing personalities or moods is common to all masks.

During religious ceremonies, masks are worn to allow the wearer to harness the power of the spirit or entity they are attempting to contact or invoke. Many of these traditions are thousands of years old but still prevalent to members of these societies today.

Like the face masks of religious tradition, surgical or medical masks have also made their way into the style books of history - with creations that are frightening at the most and a little odd at the least.

17th Century Bubonic Plague

Beak Masks

The first known face masks worn to shield against disease were Beak masks worn by plague doctors in Europe during the Bubonic plague of the 17th century. Often referred to as Bird masks due to their resemblance of a birds face and beak,(birds or beaks), these masks were designed to hold herbs that served two purposes - 1 it was believed that the herbs in the mask would help boost the immunity of the wearer and 2, to help cover the smell of the decaying bodies of those who lost their battle with the epidemic.

Along with the mask, physicians also wore a costume. The costume is usually credited to Charles de Lorme, a physician who catered to the medical needs of many European royals during the 17th century. He described an outfit that included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather. Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims. The head gear included spectacles and a mask with a half a foot long shaped beak filled with herbs and perfumes.

The Veil and Germ Theory

19th Century Paris and Germ Theory

In 19th century France, around the 1860's, women began wearing lace veils to protect against dust, due in part to the remaking of Paris.

As the germ theory spread, fashion took on a medical aura when researchers using microscopes found bacteria on dust particles.

The Germ theory, in medicine, is the theory that certain diseases are caused by the invasion of the body by microorganisms, organisms too small to be seen except through a microscope. The French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, the English surgeon Joseph Lister, and the German physician Robert Koch are given much of the credit for development and acceptance of the theory.

- Britannica

As a result of this research, an 1878 article printed in the Hospital Gazette and in Scientific American, A.J. Jessup, a Westtown, New York, physician, recommends cotton masks to limit contagion during epidemics.

- Bloomberg

"Thus we see that as quarantine and disinfection will certainly spread of contagion from patient to patient, may we not confidently hope, by preventing the entrance of germs into the lungs and blood, by a properly constructed filtering mask to yet witness the spectacle of a population walking about the streets of a cholera infested city, without fear of its infection however deadly. As a properly made cotton filter worn over the mouth and nose must shut out all atmospheric gems of the ordinary putrefactive kind. We may confidently assured that those of disease will be equally excluded..." - A.J. Jessup

Dr. Jessup notes his experiments of using test tubes with and without cotton stoppers as proof of his discoveries, but his idea didn't catch on.....yet.

- Bloomberg

In 1905 a Chicago physician by the name of Alice Hamilton published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reporting on her findings after testing the amount of streptococci bacteria expelled, when a scarlet fever patient coughs or cries.

She explains how her conversation with a medical student opened her eyes to contagions that were transferred from doctor to patient during surgeries;

"Obviously, protection of the mouth, of some sort as to catch and impression the droplets of sputum, should be a routine precaution for surgeons and for surgical nurses during operations.” - Alice Hamilton

Modern Design

Plague of Manchuria

In 1910, an epidemic of pneumonic plague strikes Manchuria. Dr. Wu Lien-Teh (Wu Liande) argues that the disease is transmitted through airborne contact. To prevent its spread, he develops masks to be worn by medical personnel and the general public.

The Spanish Flu also known as the 1918 Flu Epidemic

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history, before COVID. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin. Although there is not universal consensus regarding where the virus originated, it spread worldwide during 1918-1919. In the United States, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918.

It is estimated that about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population became infected with this virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the United States.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

During this epidemic, the US population adopted the practice of wearing masks and medical personnel began to make this a routine practice.


By the 1920s, the wearing of a mask fazed out for the general public, but continued to be worn by medical professionals as a way to protect against possibly infected patients.

- PBS News Hour

Smog Masks

1952 through 1968 London &

Smog Masks

In response to the smog of December 1952, the Clean Air Act was introduced in 1956 and revised in 1968 - due to a thick layer of fog which covered London for several days and spread across the country.

During this disaster. The Ministry of Health warned those at most risk, such as sufferers of chest and heart complaints to "stay indoors and rest as much as possible".

- BBC News

The Trend Returns


In January 2010, a month before his death from suicide, fashion designer Alexander McQueen shows a menswear collection titled "An bailitheoir cnámh," (translated as "the bone collector” in Gaelic) that features face masks and balaclavas.

- Trend Hunter

While McQueen’s work was artistic and conceptual, designers targeting the Chinese market increasingly include masks sold as fashionable accessories alongside bags and jewelry.

- Bloomberg


In 2018, singer Ariana Grande includes face masks in her merchandise lineup backing her “Sweetener” album.

- Twitter

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