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On Cloth Masks and the History of Cleanliness

Julia Dauer //

Cloth masks have become passé in this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With masks mandates mostly gone and high-quality disposable masks widely available to those who wish to use them, cloth mask sightings have become increasingly rare.  In the early days of the current pandemic, with supplies of N95 masks extremely limited in the United States, cloth masks were widely present. 

Though their use was born of a lack of access to more protective facial coverings, cloth masks were a welcome marker of care.  Public health officials shared DIY cloth mask designs, and cloth face coverings indicated an investment in pandemic protective measures.  Homemade masks were also visual reminders of the people – friends, family, community members – invested in outfitting and protecting an individual person in a time of crisis.  Masks were made and distributed as acts of care in communities, and homemade masks went up for sale on Etsy and other online platforms.  As a cloth mask cottage industry appeared in 2020, these masks materialized networks of care and labor devoted to keeping the body of the wearer and the bodies of those encountering the wearer healthy.  In this way, the cloth masks of recent years echo the long history linking specific fabrics with the clean, safe, and healthy body, as well as the histories of labor that made such associations possible. 

I’ve been thinking about cloth masks this summer while reading Kathleen M. Brown’s Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, which tracks some of the ways fabric has been thought to ensure health in British, Anglo colonial, and early U.S. culture.  By the seventeenth century, Brown shows that linen was central to English and Anglo colonial ideas about cleanliness, domestic order, and racial whiteness.  In this period, the “rubbing action of cloth touching the skin” became the primary way bodies were cleaned as bathing practices declined.  Instead, the “friction” between a body and its garments “was believed sufficient to remove dirt and preferable to immersing the fragile body in water” (Brown 26).  The linen covering a body was meant to ensure that body’s health, while also marking that body as refined and cared for. 

If linen and later cotton have historically played roles in marking bodies as clean and healthy in Anglo colonial and U.S. contexts, this fabric has been maintained through labor-intensive laundering.  The laundering and maintenance of garments was a days-long process usually carried out by women in households or itinerant laundresses.  Laundry work was central to the duties of wives and domestic servants, and in the U.S. South, enslaved people were tasked with the arduous and exacting laundry processes that allowed their enslavers to maintain an appearance of gentility (Brown 113).  The history of the healthy body maintained through clean fabric thus connects with histories of gendered, raced, and classed labor.  Sick bodies and sick beds demand even more fabric, cleaned and changed extensively to coax the body back towards health.  

There are, of course, no exact parallels between this history and the present moment.  Nevertheless, the relationship between fabric, labor, and cleanliness brings to mind the shifting burden of domestic labor in the current pandemic.  For example, women in households disproportionately took on homeschooling and other household tasks emerging from the 2020 shutdowns.  In a different way, cloth masks show the ways reliance on labor historically coded feminine – including sewing and cleaning masks – expanded in the first phrases of the pandemic in the U.S.  The fabrics utilized in daily life and made central in times of crisis also reflect ideologies of the body itself, including ideas about what protects and cleans a body, through whose efforts, and at what cost.  

The meaning of the cloth mask has shifted over time, from an object demonstrating familial or community care to a commodity purchased at varying levels of quality, and now to an object out of pace in the current phase of the pandemic.  Discussions of suitable patterns, fabrics, and styles have given way to an emphasis on surgical masks, N95s, and similar facial coverings.  As we continue in a paradigm of disposable mask wearing and site-specific masking, I’m curious about how the labor and markets that make such masks accessible can become more publicly visible, as well as the ways cloth masks will continue to circulate and reappear in the coming months and years.

Cover Image

“Madras fabric,” 27 October 2019, via Wikimedia Commons

Works Cited

Brown, Kathleen M.  Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America.  Yale University Press, 2009.

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