When New York State first issued a face-covering mandate back in April, I wasn’t even sure where to buy one. Positive cases of COVID-19 were skyrocketing, and it was nearly impossible to get your hands on this new, literally must-have accessory.
At that time, masks were pure utility. But now that they’ve been a part of daily life for months—and will continue to be—face masks are starting to morph from a personal necessity to a form of personal expression. Face masks inherently create a sense of sameness—they cover up half your face, after all—so the masks themselves have to serve as a way to express individuality. As a result, people are giving some serious pizzazz to their PPE, and it has a surprising historical parallel. The T-shirt.
While the need wasn’t as acute as masks, T-shirts were also solely utilitarian at first. They evolved from long johns in the late 1800s and were considered underwear. In 1904, the Cooper Underwear Company popularized the garment by marketing the T-shirt as an easy-to-care-for, buttonless undershirt for bachelors who, as you know, can’t do anything for themselves. It wasn’t until the 1950s that T-shirts started to become acceptable as outerwear. “Cut to films like A Streetcar Named Desire and Rebel Without a Cause, when you had these hypermasculine stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean wearing white T-shirts,” says Sara Idacavage, a fashion historian and lecturer at Parsons School of Design. “That’s obviously going to influence young people, because they want to be young and sexy like Marlon Brando.”
In just a little longer than it takes to cry “Stella!!” the humble white T-shirt became trendy. But that wasn’t the end of the line: In the ’60s and ’70s, graphic T-shirts replaced the plain white tee, when improvements in screen printing intersected with major political movements. Idacavage cited graphic tees her dad wore that said things such as “Make love, not war” and “Save the whales,” saying that the garment became a “common, open form of communication.”
Masks have undergone a similar evolution—from the blue-and-white surgical mask to Lady Gaga’s extravagant masks at the VMAs. Idacavage says this isn’t surprising. “It’s in line with the theory of fashion in general. It’s using your body as a message of communication.” We’ve seen everything from home sewers who made masks touting their favorite sports teams, to transparent masks, to futuristic face shields. Up-and-coming labels such as By Second Wind designed face masks with AOC-approved metal-chain detail, and even big fashion brands such as Burberry designed masks—Burberry’s included its signature plaid.
This too parallels the T-shirt, which is ubiquitous everywhere from fast fashion chains to high-end boutiques. (Idacavage notes that graphic tees were first co-opted by designer labels such as Vivianne Westwood and Moschino in the ’80s.) Both items are relatively easy to make and screen print, which means companies can quickly turn around new designs that feature popular groups or causes.
Face masks have also become a way to express support for various causes: Both the Biden and Trump campaigns now sell face masks; US Open tennis champion Naomi Osaka wore masks emblazoned with the names of Black victims of violence for each of her seven matches; Black Lives Matter sells face masks; and there are a variety of political and social justice-related masks on Etsy. At this point, if you want a mask that proclaims your politics, there’s a good chance you can find one.
All this is to say that T-shirts and face masks have a major commonality: They both turn your body into a human billboard. “The T-shirt is the canvas for the image or message—a canvas that can move around wherever the body that’s wearing it goes,” says Rachel Lifter, a clinical assistant professor and program director at NYU who focuses on the social and cultural analysis of fashion. And she says masks work the same way. So don’t just think of your masks as PPE—think of them as an extension of yourself, and a tiny little canvas for your face.