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Masks today are much more than what bags, shoes and other accessories stood for all this while. They’re in your face, highly visible, and the stuff of designer lines from fancy fashion houses. (Photo: Reuters)
Masks today are much more than what bags, shoes and other accessories stood for all this while. They’re in your face, highly visible, and the stuff of designer lines from fancy fashion houses. (Photo: Reuters)

How the masks came on in the covid masquerade ball

Masks were metaphorical once upon a time, the facial veneers people adopted to project themselves publicly in a manner at odds with their true selves. But that was before covid

There was a time, not so long ago, when the line “we all hide behind our masks" had an entirely different connotation than it does now. That was when I harboured a sort of barely-concealed disdain for “paranoid people" who wore physical face masks because of air pollution or a contagion scare, or, worse, a general sense of hygiene. “Really, how seriously do they take themselves?" I’d mutter to myself.

That was also a time when masks were purely metaphorical for me. My favourite “literal" interpretations were etched in stone by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Robert Bloch. In The Scarlet Letter, the former wrote, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." And, of course, who can forget Bloch’s “Horror is the removal of masks"?


Earlier this year, right before the covid scare went into top gear, there were rumblings that wearing a mask—a real, surgical one—in public spaces would become mandatory. Around then, an insouciant friend and her punctilious husband were on a flight. The husband wore a mask all through, and the wife laughed all along, calling him “pretentious", “self-important" and feigning a coughing fit while sidling close to him.

When she narrated their travel story to me, I nodded approvingly. My kind of girl. The husband scoffed, “Get ready to wear masks each time you step out—it’s going be the new normal."

“In that case," I declared grandly, “I’m not going to step out of home till as long as this virus hangs around. I mean, how long can it hang around for? A month, tops, right?"

More than eight months have passed, and the virus shows no sign of retreat. In the meantime, not only have I started wearing masks, I have accumulated a vast repertoire of face masks. I wear a new one each time I leave home (not often enough obviously), and I keep myself updated on the latest trends in the mask market.

It’s boomtime for the segment. According to Arizton, it has “witnessed market value worth over $11 billion only in 2020 due to [the covid-19] outbreak". Even when I order birthday flowers for anyone, there’s a pop-up wanting to know if I want to send a set of masks as an “accompanying" gift—that’s how ubiquitous masks are today, with no help from Stanley Ipkiss.

I recently met a friend whose lipstick colour seemed intact when she removed her mask at the coffee table. Mine, on the other hand, had disappeared into the linings of my face bandana. She explained she’d started purchasing smudge-proof makeup ever since masking began in right earnest, and offered to present me a hamper full of similar lipsticks. When my package arrived a few days later, I realized this had been a reinvention in the current context. Earlier, these were called “kiss-proof" lipsticks; today, they are called “mask-proof".

As masks became the zeitgeist of 2020, their DNA morphed from clinical into couture. Top design houses, from Ralph Lauren to Louis Vuitton to Gap, have been quick to spot a business opportunity, labelled it “social responsibility", and are crafting “lines" of masks. As products, masks have become mascots of sustainable brand—and heroes for new brands. I love how they have flattened the class hierarchy. I saw a little beggar girl with a way cooler mask than the woman in an Audi that came and stood next to her at a traffic light. In a weird way, masks become much more than what bags, shoes and other accessories stood for all this while: masks are in your face, after all, and your hands and feet and ears don’t stand a chance in the visibility stakes.

And yet, the best thing about masks, an associate pointed out, is how effective they are in the camouflaging game. “I can now roam around freely without having to fear that I’ll bump into someone I want to avoid."

Last week, I had gone to Ansal Plaza in Delhi with a friend for lunch. I wore a black-and-red mask (purchased online) that I took off for a meal of pretend Japanese. Post-lunch, mask reinstated, I hopped into the adjoining Meena Bazaar store to “just browse", and ended up buying a salwar-kameez set. While a man at the counter processed my payment, a woman (the one who did the hard-sell) carefully packed my new outfit. I noticed her dropping in a slip of an additional folder into the bag, and asked what it was. “Oh, it’s a mask, a matching one to go with your set," the lady beamed through her N95. “Masks are now part of our ensembles."

She pulled it out for me to see. It was nicely ochre with swatches of beige. I couldn’t wait to wear it. So, I walked out to the Ansal amphitheatre, sat down on one of its steps, stashed away my red-and-black mask, and put on the new one.

As I was about to check myself out on my phone—in selfie mode—my friend, who had been shopping at Decathlon, walked right past me.

When I called after him, he turned around, peered very hard and exclaimed, “That’s you? You look so different! What on earth did you do to yourself?"

“I put on a different mask."

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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