Years ago, at a Halloween party in New York, a man in a Star Wars face mask asked me for my number. When I arrived at a bar for our first date, I hadn’t yet seen his face.
I no longer go on dates (my husband wouldn’t like it). But now that face coverings are increasingly expected or required in public – and I wander around Paris wearing one from my growing collection – I’ve been thinking about that long-ago meeting. In this new era of masked encounters, a new kind of social acumen is required.
Already, a semiotics of face-gear is emerging in the city. Mother-and-daughter Liberty-print masks suggest hours of enthusiastic home schooling. Women walking alongside their partners in matching his-and-hers masks radiate a “don’t-shag-my-husband” vibe.
Of course, we’d all wear ultra-safe N95s if we could. But given the shortage of these, wearing one now signifies either that you had the foresight to predict the pandemic and get your order in early, or that you have a relative who works in health care. (Or that you got lucky. When my father discovered a pristine set in his garage, that he had bought to do woodwork long ago, he felt like he’d found a diamond necklace.)
The rest of us are improvising. At the start of the pandemic, I wore the same lipstick-stained surgical mask outside for weeks, until I realised that the unpleasant odour inside it was my own. I had more options once a local tailor converted his shop into a full-time, cotton mask-making operation. Though his prices rose 40% within a few days.
Mask fashion is still in its infancy, of course. But already, as with all clothes, if you tell me which mask you wear, I’ll tell you who you are. A new transparent mask allows the deaf to lip-read. Optimists betting beaches will reopen can buy a three-piece “trikini” swimsuit with matching mask. There are even presidential masks: on a school visit earlier this month, Emmanuel Macron wore a distinguished navy-blue one stitched with a discreet French flag.
I’ve seen regional variations too. In my hometown of Miami, people wear faux-python and knockoff-Gucci masks. Northern Californians shop for groceries in stretchy desert masks that you pull up over your face, probably left over from the Burning Man festival. My German neighbour – who didn’t leave his house at all for the first month of lockdown – finally emerged looking like a Road Warrior from “Mad Max” in a double layer of masks that he sewed himself. (Double masks have the emphatic signalling of double condoms, which say “I really, really don’t want you to have my baby.”)
Masks have erotic potential too. My husband biked to his office one morning looking rather appealing in his new African-print number. I’m turned off by men in full-face masks that seem borderline Hannibal Lecter or by anyone who looks like they’d be masked even without a pandemic.
And masks can convey a moral message. Whereas N95s protect the wearer, basic surgical masks are more altruistic: they protect everyone else from getting your germs, though they won’t do much to protect you.
But the most powerful facial statement these days is not wearing a mask at all. This can be political, to show that you’re a Trump enthusiast or a deluded anti-vaxxer. Or it may be a mark of intimacy, demonstrating that someone is in your trusted inner circle.
The transition back to bared faces, if it ever comes, could be strange. An Englishman who did the haj one year said that, after returning home from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he practically blushed when he saw women’s hair.
I’ll admit, it was odd finally to see my Star Wars date’s face. He turned out to be a sweet, unambitious younger man who worked in computing. And he was pretty cute. We went out for a few months, then it fizzled. If our masked phase had lasted longer, the mystery might have kept us together. I do wonder which mask he’s wearing now.