Writer and photographer Laura Dodsworth and seamstress Nina Murden collaborated on a project to convey the ideological significance of face masks, the new vestiture of the faithful
Do masks provide confidence, or do they keep fear in your face? Are they scientifically-proven barriers to transmission or hopeful talismans? Do they express communitarianism or abnegation of the self?
Curiously, I am more nervous about unveiling a photography series depicting the quasi-religious values masks represent than I was about my series on penises and vulvas. Will mouths covered by stitched words be more provocative than bare bodies?
This past year we have been told that wearing a mask was an act of solidarity; it showed you care. I even remember an article saying that wearing a mask was an act of love. Social media has rung with “Wear a goddamn mask!” Masks have become totemic in the latest culture war, putting the issue of conformism or rebellion right in our face.
If you don’t wear a mask, or point out the scant evidence in favour, you are labelled a Covid-denier
As a people photographer I think I am especially attuned to the face. Even after several months I find masked faces discombobulating. Most communication is non-verbal so it’s not surprising that it is harder to connect and communicate. A friend told me she cries after shopping trips because the hidden faces feel so dehumanised. I know of a little girl who is frightened of crowds of people in masks.
Some people feel more confident and protected in masks. I met a nurse who told me she is so accustomed to mask-wearing that her face feels bare in public. She said she doesn’t think masks actually help prevent infection but she feels safer anyway.
At the beginning of the epidemic, politicians and public health leaders around the world told us masks were not effective in the community. But although there was no new hard evidence, policies changed country by country. In England, masks were legally mandated on public transport on 15 June last year and then on 24 July in shops. In a speech last August, World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “The mask has come to represent solidarity.”
What he did not mention was any new evidence behind the policy change. In fact, the WHO’s guide, “Mask use in the context of Covid-19”, published last December, says: “At present there is only limited and inconsistent scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of masking of healthy people in the community to prevent infection with respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.”
In the face of such flyweight evidence we must have faith
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that masks “give people more confidence to shop safely and enhance protections for those who work in shops”. The UK government website does not offer the facts and figures behind the “science”: it just says that the “best available scientific evidence” is that face coverings “may reduce the spread of coronavirus droplets in certain circumstances, helping to protect others”.
A recent large-scale randomised controlled trial in Denmark found that masks do not protect the wearer, although it was not designed to test whether others could be protected.
In the face of such flyweight evidence we must have faith. And that, to me, is one of the key qualities masks have come to represent. Our church is the NHS, nurses our angels, and masks sacralise our faith and hope for protection.
Head coverings and veils are an integral part of Christianity, Judaism and Islam — the head and the face are closer to God. We chose white cotton masks and clothes to evoke the purity and piety of religious vestiture. So many world religions adopt white at different times: the Jewish white kittel, the garb of mourning for Buddhists and Hindu widows. I thought particularly of the white veil of the Christian novice nun, and baptismal garments, signalling the induction into faith. The white background references a clean, sanitised, medical environment.
Will we throw off our masks in 2021? Some public health officials, our new priests, want us to keep them, perhaps because they are true believers in the protective power of the mask, or perhaps because masks symbolise our obedience and compliance to the new creed: public health policy. If you don’t wear a mask, or point out the scant evidence in favour, you are labelled a Covid-denier. The implication will be you do not care. There are fines for such heretics. There is also public shaming.
Masks symbolise values that go far beyond science, a new creed we are finding the words for. They emblemise a nascent “religion” in which the moral code is based upon extending life, not securing your place in the afterlife. But in this liminal time, before we have the words and authoritative codification, make no mistake about the symbolism.
Masks are the vestiture of the faithful, signalling belief and, importantly, obedience. Handwashing and sanitising are daily baptisms, washing away our innate human infectiousness just as the Christian baptism washes away our innate sin.
Cathedrals play host to mass vaccinations in a powerful intersection of the old and new religions. Spaced congregations of the masked elderly wait, listening to organ music for their modern miracle, the rite of biomedical transubstantiation. As with all religions, your priests demand obedience and piety.
Throughout history, women and girls have sewn and embroidered to signal their faith and devotion, mainly to God and the church. The anchoresses lived holed up in small rooms adjoining churches, wedded to Christ, sewing diligently in solitude for their entire adult lives. I identify with the anchoress as I work alone in my cabin on the edge of the Downs, and have plenty of time to think and ponder on our new Covid-dominated world as I sew.
In spring last year, women made scrubs and masks, and I saw an analogy with devotional sewing as well as with the women who knitted for victory in the Second World War: 2020’s sewing was undertaken almost like an act of faith towards the institution of the NHS — virtually a national religion — which stood between us and this disease.
I cannot pledge allegiance to the narrative that we must deny our contract with life and death
This collective act of service was reinforced by the message “Protect the NHS”, and the weekly ritual of clapping and banging performed by public congregations on pavements.
Like many small businesses, my work faltered, with supply chaos and dwindling customer numbers. I was asked to make masks.
I was reluctant as, having medical people in the family, I knew their efficacy for public use was questionable. But the decree had been given: we all had to wear them. I tried to make them comfortable, washable, well-fitting, and made from the best-quality materials; they could work as a piece of clothing.
My customers were happy. It kept me going for a while. Strangely no one ever asked about their ability to prevent infection. I made no claims.
The machine embroidery of these simplified face coverings is utilitarian and not worthy of the work of the skilled women of the past. Yet embroidering these words onto that white cloth was my act of faith, for fundamentally I cannot pledge allegiance to the overwhelming narrative of our age that we must deny our contract with life and death. Masks give credence to the illusion of safety.
Mask-wearing in perpetuity is purgatory and I am not a devotee of that earthly hell
In Lockdown three, the atmosphere chilled and darkened with the winter days. There was still fear but also a weariness and a palpable anger in the air. Those who have spoken up to question the lockdown orthodoxy are shamed and called selfish and evil.
Anyone who suggests that there could be a different way forward is labelled a heretic. Witness the daily use: masks are often dirty and unwashed, slung under noses, hanging from ears, dropped and picked up from pavements, taken off when sneezing, stuffed in and out of pockets, crumpled up in work vans.
They litter the streets and green spaces, clog drains, and choke turtles on far-flung beaches. Does this look like faith or sacrilege?
What did we believe the reward for our compliance would be? That a virus would retreat and we would all be let out to live once more, and those Covid-only daily-death figures would recede into the shadows?
This promise is wearing pretty thin, like the ragged masks themselves. Is our collective belief dimming or are we desperate adherents to the faith? Mask-wearing in perpetuity is purgatory and I am not a devotee of that earthly hell.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe