On a Saturday night in April, Trevor George saw a photo, taken in the early days of the pandemic that showed a scene he figured could absolutely not persist. “Every single person had a blue three-ply disposable mask on,” says George. The image astounded him—and gave him an idea. “My wife and I looked at each other and we said, ‘There’s no way that’s going to happen in America. We knew that [Americans] were going to wear masks, but we didn’t think they were all gonna wear the exact same thing because that’s who we are. We’re very individualistic. We like to show our personality.” So he called a manufacturer that night who said they could make masks; later that week, George launched MaskClub with a sprawling inventory.
People bought Batman masks and Hello Kitty masks and tie-dye masks and masks made in collaboration with furniture textile maker Scalamandré. But most of all they bought masks with the American flag on them. They bought so many that George’s manufacturer was running three eight-hour shifts, back-to-back-to-back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Even that wasn’t enough—people bought so many that MaskClub stopped taking orders, in order to catch up with demand.
In just a couple of months, the face mask has undergone decades worth of change—the same sort of transformation that saw the T-shirt go from part of the Navy uniform to widespread civilian adoption—over the span of just a few months. First, experts told us we didn’t need them. Then the CDC recommended everyone wear one. And now they’ve reached a third, more beguiling stage: our masks represent our identities, political, stylistic, or otherwise. The face mask’s transformation from medical essential to style accessory is, like George’s, a deeply American story: one about our self-conceived rugged individualism, and about the entrepreneurial makers who exist to grind any situation, no matter how negative, into a positive.