Fashion has been an agent of social change for centuries. Jesters wore stripes as a symbol against Christian morality in the 12th century, Cuban political revolutionaries wore berets as a symbol against the Batista government, and civil rights activists wore denim as a symbol of the Black freedom struggle in the 1960s. But the COVID–19 pandemic’s introduction of mask–wearing did more than protect the population—it cemented the latest form of protest fashion.
The use of masks to make a political statement parallels the historic use of slogan T–shirts. Slogan T–shirts gained popularity in the 1970s, when Vivienne Westwood established her “SEX” boutique in London. This punk boutique featured T–shirts with political messages, such as a pro–LGBTQ+ graphic of two cowboys touching genitals.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the slogan “silence = death” was pasted onto T–shirts. This, along with other strategies like die–ins, sped up the FDA drug approval time window, giving thousands of HIV–positive individuals access to experimental treatments.
During the fourth wave of feminism in the 2010s, feminist slogan tees began to be manufactured in countless chains nationwide: “We should all be feminists,” “This is what a feminist looks like,” and others.
The adaptation of protest fashion to include masks began with the invention of Guy Fawkes masks, a caricature mask that covers the whole face. Guy Fawkes masks are based on Guy Fawkes, a Catholic rebel who attempted to blow up the British Parliament for religious persecution in 1605. Fawkes became a symbol of fighting tyranny through the dystopian anti–authoritarian graphic novel V for Vendetta.
The use of Guy Fawkes masks started with the hacktivist collective Anonymous, which uses hacking to spread awareness about humanitarian causes. In 2008, Anonymous launched Project Chanology, which criticized the Church of Scientology for censoring an interview with scientologist Tom Cruise. The symbolism and anonymity of Guy Fawkes masks empowered people worldwide to speak out against authoritarian regimes.
In 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement officially adopted the Guy Fawkes mask as its form of protest against corruption. That same year, people across the Middle East wore Guy Fawkes masks in anti–authoritarian Arab Spring protests. In 2012, protesters gathered in Mumbai in opposition to the Indian government’s censorship of the Internet. In 2006, Thai protesters wore Guy Fawkes masks in demonstrations against their corrupt puppet government, which was led by an exiled prime minister.
As recently as 2019, Hong Kong protesters used Guy Fawkes masks to oppose a controversial bill that permitted extradition from Hong Kong to China. Guy Fawkes masks became so effective at protecting protesters that China banned the use of face masks.
The pandemic also fundamentally changed the application of mask–wearing. After the murder of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, BLM activists used mask mandates to promote social change. Protest masks included a variety of slogans, such as the words “I can't breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Say her name,” and the names of other Black people who were brutally murdered by police.
The use of protest masks quickly spread nationwide. At the 2020 U.S. Open, professional tennis player Naomi Osaka wore seven different face masks, one for each round of the tournament. Each mask bore the name of a black victim of racial injustice—Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice.
Protest masks even found their way onto Snapchat, which now includes Bitmoji selfie options of masks with the slogans “Our voices matter,” “BLM,” and “Now.” Masks supporting Black Lives Matter also started popping up in retail giants like Walmart, Amazon, and Etsy.
Since most corporate policies prohibit workers from wearing masks with slogans on them, restaurant and retail workers are now fighting for the right to wear BLM masks to work. Though Whole Foods and Chick–fil–A continue to ban employees from wearing supposedly disruptive BLM gear, companies such as Starbucks and Wawa have changed their policies to permit items supporting Black Lives Matter. After a Taco Bell employee was fired for wearing a BLM mask, Taco Bell apologized for the miscommunication, stating: “We believe the Black Lives Matter movement is a human rights issue and not a political one.”
But unlike every other type of protest fashion, masks are not simply a creative way to express activist beliefs. In the age of surveillance capitalism, the level to which protest anonymity is threatened has been exacerbated by high–tech devices that can monitor and identify protestors. And so the importance of masks takes on a new meaning—In addition to being easily manufactured, gender neutral, and accessible, protest masks offer a guise of anonymity that slogan T–shirts can’t. In a world that treats privacy as expendable, this is a necessity.
The FBI has repeatedly used advanced technology to spy on Black protesters. In 2008, the FBI permitted its agents to use census data to map American communities by race and ethnicity, identify ethnic “facilities” and “behaviors,” and launch an investigation to monitor an alleged “Black Separatist” terrorism threat in Atlanta.
In 2014, the FBI tracked BLM activists advocating for Michael Brown, a Black man who was murdered by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The FBI tracked BLM protesters across the country, warned local law enforcement partners that “Islamic State group supporters” were recruiting protesters. It was later revealed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had secretly drafted a “race paper” covering the movements of BLM activists, indicating that the FBI sent out undercover agents to surveil the social media, homes, cars, and travel of anti–racist protesters. A few years later in 2018, the FBI used advanced surveillance aircraft to monitor BLM protests in Baltimore after the killing of Freddie Gray.
A 2017 leak of the FBI’s internal records later revealed that the FBI classified “Black identity extremism” as a new domestic terrorism category to be monitored. Of course, this poorly–disguised racism conveniently ignored the fact that Black supremacist violence—unlike white supremacist violence—does not exist.
But it is not only the FBI that is to blame. The insidious effects of technological monitoring have transformed the police force into a surveillance agent, equipped with whatever tools they need: body cameras, cell–site simulators, automated license plate readers, social media monitoring tools, and drones. Police also use facial recognition apps to identify protesters and stingray devices to pinpoint protesters' phones.
Firms like Amazon and Axon capitalize on this by marketing specific technologies to police departments. In 2019, Amazon even had a secret agreement with local police departments to advertise its surveillance cameras in exchange for free Ring products and access to the camera footage. Amazon also gave free devices to police for every 20 people they persuaded to use the Ring app in several cities.
China, which is home to 16 out of the top 20 most surveilled cities in the world, primarily uses technology to maintain so–called “law and order.” The Chinese government converts data on its citizens into social credit scores through the system Sharp Eyes, which employs 200 million cameras that recognize faces, record how people walk, and track people’s location. This social credit system classifies citizens as “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy” based on their monitored actions. The government then targets and penalizes individuals on the “black list” who protest against the Communist party. This largely applies to protesters in Hong Kong, who demonstrate by climbing up ladders and covering surveillance cameras.
When it comes to political change, it’s clear that masks aren’t just a staple of the pandemic. Masks serve two purposes in the world of activism—they can be a wordless way to communicate a movement’s core message, and they offer practical benefits as a tool to avoid surveillance while protesting. In short, they are impactful, they are accessible, they are necessary—a modern–day revolution.