NO ONE could have predicted months ago that masks would have been a constant feature in our daily lives; the new reality had us at Kitcharee thinking about its origins.
Over the decades face masks have been used either as protective gear or a fashion statement, said Nadia John, lawyer and founder of the boutique Mermaid Designs. Her eclectic business which revolves around swim, rave and masquerade designs and accessories has also included fashionable avant-garde masks which saw a surge in popularity in recent years thanks largely in part to the rave culture. John mostly retails but has also single-handedly designed and customised face masks for every occasion from Halloween to rave parties.
Given her deep interest in masks that verges on being anthropological, it’s not surprising that John follows every news article that touches on the subject.
Masking is deeply embedded in ancient cultures worldwide. To understand the origins of face masks one would have to travel back in time to the 15th and 16th centuries when the European elite hosted masquerade balls with their fancy costumes and elaborate face masks.
“The planters brought that tradition to Trinidad and it was translated into the earliest of the Carnival origins,” says John.
As the Carnival culture evolved, it was only a matter of time before it crossed paths with the rave culture which was first popularised in Europe and the US. John explains that there is a strong synergy between both cultures—little wonder, since masks are also a big part of the rave culture. When the rave scene was emerging in the 90s, partygoers started sporting full face gas masks as a way of standing out.
“Masking promoted a sense of individuality from the point of view of wanting to show one’s creative side or wanting privacy and camouflaging one’s identity,” said John.
Fashionable and practical
People then began customising their masks according to their own tastes and personality. Different fabrics and styles as well as embellishments ranging from glitter, sequins and kandi beads were used to add one’s own individual stamp on the mask.
“The kandi bead (colourful barrel-shaped bead) is very significant to the rave culture because there is a concept in that culture called ‘PLUR’ - peace, love, unity and respect. Those beads are primarily used to make colourful bracelets in various patterns which would then be traded at festivals as a way of bonding and showing solidarity with fellow ravers,” explains John.
The masks may have been a fashion statement but they also served practical purposes. The rave culture started as a marginalised and underground activity. In its early days persons had raves in dusty warehouses and fields so partygoers wore masks to protect their faces. That tradition continues today at other festivals like Burning Man and Coachella.
Throughout history masks have taken on different looks, shapes and functions. Back in the days of the Spanish Influenza and World War II they covered the entire face and head so as to provide maximum protection from an unseen danger. Decades later celebrities like Michael Jackson used face masks and on some occasions even his children’s faces were also covered to protect them from the prying camera lenses of the paparazzi. Surgical masks and cosplay style masks are actually incorporated into everyday looks in some Asian countries such as Japan. And for other entertainers in popular culture like Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Lady Casa and Marshmello—masks are part of their identity.
Since 2015, John has witnessed an upsurge in masks. There is a fairly active rave (and cosplay culture) here in T&T with concerts like Sunset FestivalTT and international acts such as Major Lazer. Masks have also become a hot trend for Jouvert and Monday wear. Others like nail technicians wear customised masks that display their unique fashion sense while they were at work. The ninja style mask has overtaken other designs in terms of popularity.
Today masks are primarily used out of necessity and may become part of the new normal, says John.
“I think that in the interest of self-preservation and maintaining public health, masks may become part of our everyday lives. Masks are no longer an aesthetic or fun thing, it’s almost like a necessity because we are trying to protect ourselves against an invisible enemy. You don’t know at what moment you may meet with someone who is not well,” she says.
The public has to be guided by what is available, what they can afford and what they think will give them the best protection based on medical guidelines out there, she added. The masks that were available at John’s store which have since sold out were made with two layers which offered its wearers more protection.
The function of masks has come full circle, says John. More than a century ago they were donned to protect persons from a pandemic—the Spanish Influenza—today we’re using them to protect us from becoming casualties of yet another deadly pandemic—COVID-19.
John is hopeful that we will return to a time when masks are used just for fun.
“I really hope and pray that Trinidad and other countries in the world will enter better times soon and that there will be the necessary healing because it looks grim at the moment,” says John.