Image of Mask
Image of Mask

The mask in work, sport, and war

Masks can have very practical and applied uses that do not always link with spiritual practices or festivities. For those who live in the Western World, this may be seen as the most common use of masks today.

In contrast, the masks of traditional cultures can be seen through Western eyes as strange, exotic and suggesting superstition. What can we infer from this perception of role and cultural application of the mask?

Perhaps our masks of work, sport and war are not just practical tools. Perhaps they can transform the wearer as completely as the masks of traditional spiritual and religious masquerades.

Image of Mask
     Battalion March with Gas Mask;
     photograph by journalist Dennis J. Herring
     from Wikimedia Commons

Around the world, masks are worn to protect the wearer from physical danger. This danger can relate to the work environment, where the face must be protected from impacts such as intense light, heat, physical particles, and possible infection from disease causing agents like bacteria and viruses, or poising from chemicals. In sport, masks of all shapes and sizes, some completely covering the head as helmets, give some protection to the player. In similar vein, for thousands of years masks have offered protection during physical combat.

One can consider whether the Western World is truly devoid of masks of ‘superstition’ and character transformation. When the footballer puts on his helmet (and his V-physique exaggerating uniform), is he simply achieving protection, or is he also projecting what it means to be a combatant in a risky, testosterone-charged sporting battle? Modern sportsmen in contact sports like football and hockey can be seen as the contemporary versions of the warriors of former days and the gladiators of ancient Rome, and in both, the mask can be read as a statement of their heroism and fortitude. In a sense, the mask of the modern sportsman can transform the individual as much as the mask of the tribal dancer in West Africa.

Image of Mask
     Rey Mysterio on WWE Wrestle Mania Revenge Tour in Bologna 2005;
     photograph from Wikimedia Commons

In the Western world, wrestlers have been masked as part of their characterization. In North America this practice dates from 1915 when Mort Henderson launched himself as the "Masked Marvel" in New York. North American masked wrestlers have tended to be seen as ‘bad guys’ of the ring. Masking has become a modern phenomenon in Mexico, with the Lucha Libre (free style) wrestlers. Here the mask is so fundamental to the wrestler that its intentional removal is grounds for disqualification of an opponent. An unmasked wrestler will cover their face immediately. There are strong associations with the superheroes of the popular media – to unmask the hero is to defeat them.

The positive associations of the sporting mask can be inverted by context. In the slasher film Friday the 13th Part III (Paramount Pictures, Director Steve Miner, Producer Frank Mancuso Jr, 1982), the psychopathic Jason Voorhees uses a hockey mask from a victim to disguise himself as he goes on his bloodthirsty way (in an earlier film, he simply wears a bag over his head). Friday the 13th Part III cost about $2.5 million to produce and grossed nearly $37 million, demonstrating that masks in film can pay as well as masks in professional sport.

Masks in work do more than offer protection. They are also great social ‘levelers’. The mask conveys a standardized anonymity that reflects the job being done, not the person wearing the mask. Woman or man; rich or poor; African American or Irish American …. wear a welder’s mask and you are a welder. In the 1983 film Flashdance (director Adrian Lyne, Paramount), the welder’s mask captures the blue collar, and anonymous, life of the lead character who aspires to be a dancer – her released alter-ego.

Image of Mask
     M. Plate Jr. from Wikimedia Commons

A medical doctor wears a surgical mask for a purpose. Yet masks can evolve to other uses. Compare the surgical mask of today with the Dottore (Doctor) mask of the commedia dell'arte, the comedic performance art 16th century Italy. The Doctor performed as one of the conservative old men who were obstacles to young theatrical lovers. Yet this mask devolves from practical use. The Medico Della Peste (Plague Doctor) with its long beak-like nose is one of the most recognizable of the Venetian masks. Its origins lie with a 16th century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask while treating plague victims. Other doctors followed de Lorme's example, wearing the mask that was deemed to protect against breathing in the disease, plus black cloaks, white gloves and a stick (to move patients without having to come into physical contact). Doctors could be immediately identified by their mask and attire.

In like fashion, the masks of war convey purpose, but also uniformity and anonymity. World War One is perhaps better codified by the image of a gas mask than by any other single symbol. So many elements of war are embodied in that facial covering – the transformation of the human face into an almost machine-like visage, the subsequent dehumanization of the wearer, the awful reality of modern industrialized warfare, and of course, the specter of painful death. Somewhat perversely, war style gas masks feature in various genres of punk culture fashion, such as steam punk.

Other war masks may acquire a more romantic symbolism, detached from the reality of war at the time of the mask. A medieval knight’s helmet-mask can project notions of chivalry rather than butchery on the battlefield or drowning face down in a shallow puddle of water. A Japanese samurai warrior helmet-mask may project honor and bravery, more than the rigid and often brutal feudal hierarchy that supported a samurai class.

The unifying associations of a mask can be expanded to embrace something much broader. The Spartan mask-helmet logo of Michigan State University embodies the virtues of courage and endurance. The Spartan defense of Thermopylae against Persian invaders in 480 B.C. with its association of bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, is enshrined in the helmet mask’s stark no-nonsense profile. In the motion picture, 300 (Warner Brothers, 2007, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller), the Thermopylae conflict is fictionalized into a cataclysm of good versus evil. Ironically, in the movie the Spartans only rarely wear their mask helmets, but the most evil of the Persian forces are the masked Immortals who are defeated – and unmasked … revealed to be human – by the courageous Spartans. Today at Michigan State, the ancient Greek mask has become something much more than pragmatic and archaic protection. This is the mask purely as symbol, of how Michigan State University sees itself, and how it wants to be seen by the world.


Have you ever worn a mask or costume and felt that you were somehow stronger than you were without it?

Are all the associations with the Spartan battle mask positive ones?

Do you know of any other organizations that use a mask as their symbol or logo?

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