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If allowing a woman to cover her face in public is a matter for discussion and, at times, heated debate, then the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the discussion of face coverings to an entirely new level. Depending on your perspective, the COVID face mask is political, fashionable, essential -- and is being produced in quantities like never before.

A group of people standing outdoors wearing masks over their mouths. This was probably during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. One of the women has a sign in front of her reading 'Wear a mask or go to jail." Courtesy Digital Public Library America.A group of people standing outdoors wearing masks over their mouths. This was probably during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. One of the women has a sign in front of her reading 'Wear a mask or go to jail." Courtesy Digital Public Library America.

During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, individuals, corporations, and governments faced similar challenges to those confronted today. American cities that passed masking ordinances in the autumn of 1918 struggled to enforce them among the small portion of people who rebelled. Some even poked holes in their masks in order to smoke. Common punishments were fines, prison sentences, and having your name printed in the newspaper.

On September 28, 1918, The Boston Daily Globe instructed readers on how to make a gauze mask, and were urged by its commissioner of health to “make any kind of a mask, any kind of a covering for the nose and mouth, and use it immediately and at all times. Even a handkerchief held in place over the face is better than nothing.” There was debate within the medical and scientific community as to whether the multi-ply, gauze masks were effective. Then-Detroit health commissioner, J.W. Inches, said gauze masks were too porous to prevent the spread of flu among the public.

The “Safety First” Veil designed by Stern & Stern Women’s Wear Daily, October 23, 1918.The “Safety First” Veil designed by Stern & Stern Women’s Wear Daily, October 23, 1918.On October 16, 1918, Women’s Wear Daily reported that chiffon veils for flu may become compulsory in New York to stop the epidemic. Health Commissioner Copeland issued the statement, “I heartily favour every woman wearing a heavy chiffon veil all the time she is on the street. It may become necessary to order everyone in New York to adopt this measure. These veils are rather thick and would serve as an almost absolute preventive. Let’s forget style and stop this epidemic!”

Forget style?! The fashion industry came to the rescue as veil manufacturers saw the chiffon veil as the next great economic opportunity. From New York to Seattle, “influenza veils” set a new fashion trend. The counters in nearly all of the Seattle department stores were heaped with chiffon veils of all hues and colours. All styles were in vogue, from the swathed-like-a-mummy effect of a thick “motoring” veil, to the fluffy, fine-meshed veil with a chiffon border.
On October 18, 1918, The Seattle Daily Times reported, “Veils apparently have ceased to be merely ornamental appendages to the modern woman’s costume and have become, for the moment, in Seattle at least, a necessity in malady’s wardrobe. In addition to their usefulness, they lend a distinctive and individual touch when worn in the same or a contrasting shade with the tailleur.”

New York, October 23, 1918, Women’s Wear Daily reported on the influenza preventive, “The first of this kind to be advertised for the purpose was called the “Flu” veil. This was a mesh veil with a chiffon border, in harem effect, of from 3 ½ to 4 ½ inches in width. Some women objected to it and the all-chiffon veil as being too warm and unsightly, so it remained for Stern & Stern to design one which would be both practical and ornamental, which they called the “Safety First” veil. It was made of Shetland mesh, with a hemstitched section of chiffon at the lower edge of the front, about 5 inches wide, just covering the mouth and nose. Judging from the orders coming in, it is safe to predict that it will remain one of the style features of the season.”

It is unclear how effective mask-wearing was in flattening the curve during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919. What is known, however, is that communities that implemented stronger health measures fared far better than those that did not -- and face masks are as much a fashion statement today as they were over 100 years ago.

Loren G. Mealey, June 7, 2020


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