The Rolling Stones lips logo, political statements, camouflage, the American flag, designer logos, humorous sayings (“like a good neighbor, stay over there”), rainbows, dogs, cats, vegetables, flowers, leopard print, sequins … you name it, you can find a face mask to fit your personality these days.
But, the face masks of the COVID-19 era are not only a fashion statement but a political statement. They are a sign of the times and have taken on a role as coronavirus cultural icon. And for some, it’s just the new way of life.
“Six months ago, a mask was just an object to me. It certainly wasn’t something I found myself wearing or even thinking about,” said Betsy Sweeny, Wheeling Heritage’s director of heritage programming.
“Now, I grab for my mask as often as my keys and phone. This thing that was previously thought of as universal and pretty insignificant is now part of my face. So yeah, now I’m thinking about what it means to put one on. I want something aesthetically pleasing, another way to show my personality. People can’t tell if I’m smiling at them any more, but I would like my face to look friendly,” she said.
She wears masks her mom fashioned from baby clothes. Artist Robert Villamagna gets a laugh with his “baby face” mask. Mayor Glenn Elliott sports a “Mayor Elliott 2020” mask when he’s out and about, while Heritage Music BluesFest producer Bruce Wheeler made masks for himself and other BluesFest fans from festival bandanas.
J. Jones Evening Wear in Wheeling created sequined masks, and took orders back in April. Because proms and weddings were at a standstill, they wanted to add a little bling to people’s quarantined lives.
THE ART OF THE MASK
Artist Robert Villamagna is “being a baby” about this whole mask thing — well, just his baby face.
As seen in the header image of the article, Villamagna’s “baby face” face mask came from Zulilly, an online clothing shop.
“This whole mask thing, while I do believe in its value, is a pain in the butt. So, I wanted to have fun with it as best I could. Online, it looked very much like a baby face, but when I wear it, it looks more like something out of a B movie about a bank robbery gone bad,” he said.
What does this mask say about the artist’s personality?
“I guess I like to laugh, even if it’s at myself, or with others. Funny thing is, I was so backward in high school, and I would have never worn anything that would draw attention to me. I just sort of blended into the woodwork.”
Well, not with that mask, he won’t!
FROM BABY FACE TO BABY CLOTHES
“My mom likes to sew and made a lot of clothes for me when I was little. She had a lot of scrap fabric from those projects and figured she would use that instead of making an unnecessary trip out to buy fabric,” said Betsy Sweeny.
“The mask I wear most often is blue and white, and the fabric was originally for my tooth fairy pillow growing up. I don’t know if this is a thing, or just a thing in my house, but when I lost a tooth I had a special pillow with a little pocket to put the tooth in, so the tooth fairy would be able to find it and replace it with a prize. Now, I just think the fabric looks cute with my jacket.”
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Sweeny said her mom “is not super sentimental,” but she is thoughtful and resourceful. “She had fun matching the scraps with the people she was making them for. … It was fun, I picked a few, some because I remembered where they came from, and some were from so long ago I had to ask. We had a laugh about some of the prints being a little louder than your typical mask.”
Sweeny would make her mom proud, because she is wearing the ones she made for her. “… demographically, I’m considered low-risk for catching the virus, but it’s important to me that I don’t put others at risk when I’m out, so I always keep one in my purse.”
Sarah Morgan, who works at the Public Market in downtown Wheeling, wears a face mask with a vegetable pattern. While it is appropriate to her job, it’s not her identity, she says. It shows support.
“Wearing my mask is a way I can actively support all people, whether they have on a mask or not. I support movements in preventing and conquering disease. Family and friends equip me with the necessary gear and encouragement to support others as I do my job,” she said.
The vegetable mask and a few others that she wears were gifts from her mother.
“My mom, a retired nurse, knows what is required to function in the field using PPE. She thoughtfully constructed this mask to meet those requirements. This mask includes a nose frame, which keeps the mask in place (no sliding off my nose). It also included an opening to insert a filter,” she said
Bruce Wheeler grabbed a handful of Heritage Music BluesFest bandanas one day recently and decided to turn them into face masks by folding, pressing and adding elastic ear loops.
“When I started to look at what was available, you couldn’t really buy them at that time — everyone was sold out. I Googled how to make a face mask, and one of the things I ran into was how to make one out of a bandana. And I thought, I have bandanas from last year’s BluesFest,” he said.
It took him a few tries, but eventually he came up with a version that worked, then added some improvements — like a wire twist-tie to help the mask keep its shape over his nose, he said.
Elliott’s mask was made by a family friend. He wears a few others, but he said the campaign mask in particular has generated the most feedback. Elliott was recently re-elected as the city’s mayor.
“Some thumbs up. Some ‘love your mask’ comments. Some curious looks. And, I’m sure, some grumblings that I did not hear,” he said.
“Unfortunately, wearing or not wearing a mask in public has for some taken on a political component in our increasingly divided country. And for those of us in public service, there will be critics who attribute political motives to whatever decisions we make in this regard. But for me, it is simply enduring a minor inconvenience that could protect other people that I come in contact with. Our local population is nearly a decade older than the national average, and many in our community have pre-existing health conditions that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19,” Elliott noted.
• Having spent nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal now serves as Weelunk’s managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.