Virginia Postrel

Masking and Unmasking Civilization

Air Date: April 18, 2022

Author Virginia Postrel discusses the history of fabric and contemporary mask-wearing practices to protect public health.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome to the program today, Virginia Postrel. She is author of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World” and a celebrated columnist, writer, and thinker. Virginia, a pleasure to finally host you. The book came out a while back, but in paperback it came out this past December and we’re thrilled to have you on the program. Thanks for being here.


POSTREL: It’s great to be with you


HEFFNER: Virginia, let me start from the beginning of when the book initially came out and what your motivation was in writing it.


POSTREL: Well, one thing I like in my writing is to explore things that are really important but overlooked. And that’s what this book, which is very much about history and science and technology and culture, has in common with my previous most recent book “The Power of Glamour” which is real about visual persuasion. They’re both really important, but they’re overlooked. So textiles definitely falls into that category. Over a period of 10, 15 years, I heard a number of talks, saw exhibits that made me realize that textiles really had an exciting and fascinating history that was worth exploring.


HEFFNER: And one of the things about that history is that it really is not just the fabric of civilization, but in some ways the origin of civilization as we’ve kind of conceived of civil society. So, you know, take us through the history of what you’re trying to chronicle, from the very beginning through the present pandemic era that we’re living in.


POSTREL: Yeah. So the earliest thing in the book, the book is not organized chronologically, although each chapter, more or less is, but the earliest thing in the book is Neanderthal string, which was actually identified right after I submitted the manuscript and before I submitted the second draft. So this is actually pretty new research. But 50,000-year-old plant fiber string, clearly string, not some random vine, it’s been twisted together. And then two strands have been twisted together. And this is a hugely significant, very early technology. Because once you have string, a whole bunch of other things open up. And in fact we could call it the string age instead of the stone age, if string lasted as well. You can tie arrowheads to arrows or spears. You can make bows; you can make traps for hunting. You can make baby carriers, you can tie your food up above the cave floor, that, lots of things, fishing nets, lots of things become possible.


So this is one of the earliest human technologies, the string. Takes a long time before string becomes thread for making actual cloth. That dates to about 9,000, 10,000 years ago. And there you do start to get what we might call civilization that is settled settlements, agriculture trade, all of these sorts of things. And over the history of humanity, you find textiles again and again at the nexus of really important things, whether it’s literacy, whether it’s long-distance trade, mathematics, bookkeeping, various conquests, as well, you know, political things. It’s very, textiles, because they are so central to human existence, whether it’s for protection or adornment or ritual they come into all kinds of aspects of our civilization.


HEFFNER: And public health, in the midst of a pandemic. You alluded to it, but I’ll be more explicit, the masks that yeah, we wear, reluctantly in some cases, but in very intentionally, reluctantly and very intentionally, right, to protect our health, even at this, what may be considered late stage of the pandemic, if you are optimistic. I feel like we’re in this tunnel from which light glimmers, but never fully emerges. So, I wanted to ask you about this in the course of writing the book, the history of mask wearing and making,


POSTRE: Right, right.


HEFFNER: Seems right at the center of our lives.


POSTREL: Yeah. So, actually the book went to press before the pandemic. So there’s nothing about that in the book. However, I have written a few articles for Bloomberg where I write for Bloomberg Opinion. One of the earliest and most fun was on the history of masks. And whether you’re talking about the leather plague, doctor masks that were worn during the black plague, and sometimes they’re often, you know, Halloween or carnival masks now with a long nose or looking at the 1918 flu mandatory masks that was, there were mask mandates then. And when, masks did not come to be used in surgery until relatively recently, really until the first World War. They were used some before that. But until the war is more common than not for surgeons to just be spewing their germs everywhere. So that was kind of shocking. One of the things that I don’t discuss in the book, just because you can’t do everything, is what are called non-wovens. The ancient version of that is felt, which is made by matting animal fibers together, wool usually, with water and friction. And so that’s what the Mongols use to make their tents. I talk about it a little bit in the book. But those are really important. The modern versions are super important in making those filters that are used in masks. And that’s why our masks are much better than the ones that were used in 1918, which were, I think probably pretty ineffective because they were essentially gauze and gauze is just a bunch of holes.


HEFFNER: Right. What was your takeaway as you authored this book, masks become, you know…?




HEFFNER: …prevalent in common use, and will be for some time I suspect. In terms of thinking about the correlation between different stages of the advancement of textiles and how we kind of perceived the world around us. And go ahead.


POSTRE: Right. Well, one of the things that I wrote about is that masks are clothes, that we need to think about them as clothes. And that explains a lot of the resistance to them as well. Because even, people really hate being told what to wear, and what they, what they have to wear and what they can’t wear. And there’s a lot of history in the book about cases where people were told, you know, this class of person can’t wear this. Or this is banned. And there was tremendous resistance even to the point of people risking death penalties in some cases. So when you understand that history, it helps you to understand the resistance to masks. And so one of the things that I’ve always advocated is that we need to understand that, and we need to address that feeling of autonomy and also to help make my mask stylish; to acknowledge that maybe the generic surgical mask is not going to be the thing that’s going to get everybody to wear a mask. You know, I had a whole wardrobe of cloth asks with inserts, filtered inserts, so they’re actually quite good that I bought. But lately I’ve been started wearing N 95s, but I buy them in different colors, because you have to understand that this is part, this has become part of your wardrobe and it’s part of a form of self-expression. And one, and it became so politically charged was that for many people, it wasn’t seen as a sensible precaution, like washing your hands. It was seen as, you know, big daddy telling me what to wear. And so that got people’s backs up. Unfortunately. I mean, Wear masks, people! They’re good!


HEFFNER: Yeah, no, as, as I said from the outset, it’s, you know, it still is pretty stunning, people’s aggressiveness, or their unwillingness to, you know, accept basic science. And you know, I don’t know if, if the whole history that you laid out gives you any insight into how this, this is going to evolve further.


POSTREL: Right. Well, I think that the history really does show that people don’t like being told what to wear. And that’s a problem. And so there needed to be sensitivity. And of course, in the course of the mask, I mean, first we were told not to wear them and that, which at the time struck me as ridiculous. I mean, it was one thing to say, don’t wear N95s because healthcare people need them. But I live in Los Angeles, where, because we have a large Asian population, a lot of people traditionally, before COVID, would wear a surgical mask if they had a cold, just that’s something that’s fairly common in Asia and you would see it on the streets of LA as well. So to me wearing a mask was not a big deal in the early days of the pandemic. And I thought that we should, that those mixed signals that were sent were not helpful. But again, if you look at the history of textiles, you see that people really care about these things. They care about what they wear. They care about what it looks like. They care about self-expression with it. And when you’re talking about something that covers the lower half of your face, and so therefore blots out part of your identity you really need to be cognizant of how do you make that so that it’s a self-affirming thing, rather than a self-denying thing, and where it, it signals autonomy rather than subordination. And that’s, I mean, I think unfortunately that, you know, pick your cliche, that that ship has sailed. That horse is out of the barn, you know, we are where we are. But I think it could have been done much better, with a much more respectful understanding of what textiles and clothing, in particular, mean to people, and that they are not just functional. I mean, you go back, we have a scrap of cloth that’s 6,200 years old, from Peru where it’s dry enough for it to be preserved. And it is striped in indigo, brown cotton and a white milk weed plant. 6,200 years ago, people were incredibly poor by anyone’s standard today. And, and if you think of textiles as purely functional, you never would go to the trouble to develop indigo die, to make it blue and to create these stripes. And yet people did. And this says that throughout the history of textiles, there’s something more than mere function going on. Textiles, incredibly important as functional artifacts, but they’re also important for the pleasure and meaning that we get out of them. And so I think in terms of masks, the function is obviously the reason that we’re adopting this custom of wearing masks, but we need to be cognizant of people’s, the other things people want out of at textiles, that they want pleasure, that they want meaning, they want something that says something about who they are. And so that to the degree that you can combine that function with something that’s beautiful or meaningful, it could be, you know, your favorite sports team or whatever, your politics, you know, your favorite charity, whatever it might be. But if you could combine it with that, you’re more likely to get adoption.


HEFFNER: And do you hear the arguments about the dehumanization of the mask wearing, because you know, it’s not just about aesthetics. I think there, there is the argument that I’ve heard before about how it’s dehumanizing and now you have governors beginning to hear in the, in, you know, the tri-state area, governor of New Jersey who is saying even amidst Omicron, you know, let’s encourage our schoolchildren, and their teachers to open up, take the masks off.


POSTREL: Well, I just got finished teaching an intensive January class at Chapman University where I’m a fellow, and it was a discussion class and it was done, well, the first week was on Zoom and then the rest of it was with masks. And you definitely lose something. I mean, you lose the ability to hear somewhat but you also, I said to these two guys, I said, you know, in your masks, you look almost the same. I have trouble telling you apart. And if you take the mask off, you look totally different. And that was absolutely true. One guy had it even had a beard and the other one didn’t, you know. But they were both, these kind of had your coloring, you know, and you put a mask on them and, and they don’t look that different. So there is this, I don’t know if I would call it dehumanizing, but it’s depersonalizing it, when you take away half of a person’s face and the expressive you know, a lot of the expression, their mouth, their smiles, their facial expressions, it becomes much more difficult to communicate with that person and for that person to communicate with you. And so there definitely is an aspect to that. And I think that we have had throughout this dialogue about, or, or debate or yelling at each other about masks, there’s been one side that has said, it’s all about, you know, the only thing that matters is safety. And there’s another side that has said, you know, sort of, the only thing that matters is my autonomy. And the truth is all of us care about both. And we make different tradeoffs along those lines. And so I’m not an absolutist on either one. I wear masks, but I understand why people don’t want to.


HEFFNER: Right. And why people don’t want to live through a pandemic era. I mean, it,


POSTREL: Oh, absolutely. Oh, that’s a whole other thing. Yeah.


HEFFNER: Right. No, I mean, and, yes, but they are related and just like you wear a, you know, a winter hat or a scarf,




HEFFNER: Or mittens and gloves in winter, you know, so at least be honest, right, about what your intention is.  If your intention is, you know, in the context of socializing, it’s impersonal, you use the word, you know, depersonalizing, if not dehumanizing.




HEFFNER: But there’s no, the efficacy question, you know, flu fluids come out, you know, you,




HEFFNER: There’s, there’s no doubt. And if you’re close to someone, as long as COVID exists, and there’s not a very clear antiviral approach, and there isn’t. I mean, people at, towards the end of last year were very optimistic about the idea of antiviral pills. They haven’t been accessible to people. And they’re not proven yet to work. And we know about the challenges with the vaccination. Everybody was vaccinated at a different time. Everybody was boosted at a different time. It’s the most disorderly pandemic response.


POSTREL: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I actually, I have to say, I was very pessimistic about the vaccine rollout. I thought it was going to be a disaster. I actually think it’s gone remarkably well. I mean given the number. I mean, I mean, in terms of the rollout, the availability of vaccines,


HEFFNER: No dispute there!


POSTREL: Some people don’t want to get them, but it’s, it’s, I was afraid they just literally wouldn’t have enough people to give the shots, because the scale is so huge.




POSTREL: But it actually has worked out recently.


HEFFNER: I’m not disputing that about the rollout itself. I’m more acknowledging the impact of active breakthrough cases. And by the time this hits air and we’re on this television and you’re watching us, viewers, there will likely have been a million deaths from COVID-19. And that’s people in their twenties, thirties forties, that’s kids, that’s infants. Yes, that’s older and immunocompromised folks too. But, you know, it’s just going to keep going. That’s my point, mask wearing is the one thing with that, that, you know, despite the imperfection of the vaccine, or, you know, the fact that the vaccine will give you antibodies up to a certain point. And we don’t know what that point is. My point, Virginia, is just that the importance of mask wearing, is, could not be overstated.


POSTREL Well, I think, I mean, I’ll push back a little bit. I mean, as I say, I’m in favor of mask wearing, I think it’s a good thing. It can be overstated. I mean, it can be overstated where you have people who are walking on the sidewalk, 10 feet away from my other people who you know, get upset if somebody doesn’t wear a mask. If you’re outdoors, it’s far less important than if you’re indoors. If the ventilation is good, it’s far less important than if the ventilation is bad. If people are vaccinated, it’s far less important than if they’re not. Yes, you get breakthrough cases. Absolutely. And I, I know some, and some of my students had them but they’re also much less severe than if you’re not vaccinated. I mean, it’s very important that people not think that the vaccine is sort of useless because the vaccine is incredibly useful, and it’s an amazing triumph of, you know, science and technology to do it in, you know, it. It bodes well for vaccines, not just against COVID, but against all many other kinds of diseases down the line. And, and other kinds of medical advances, these techniques have been tried here. So, you know, as I say, masks are a good thing. I do think we need to try to get to a place where they’re not something that you have to wear all the time, where it’s expected that all the time, regardless of your health status, you’re going to wear them because they do have that aspect of cutting us off from other people, which is part of the point, cutting our germs off from other people. But they make people less sociable and there you know, their real cost loneliness, their real cost to education. All of these kinds of things are real. But they are amazing, simple inventions too.


HEFFNER: Yeah, no, I hear you. I think that the challenge is recognizing the vulnerability we continue to have because the, I’m not denying the science of mRNA and, and these vaccines the science is extremely helpful in preventing severe disease among people. And at the same time, we see breakthrough cases that lead to hospitalization and death among virtually every age bracket. So it’s always a question of risk and reward in our calculus for, you know, how much, you know, we want to continue to protect you know, fellow human beings, prevent the hospital systems from buckling again. And you know, those choices are individual choices. And, I would think you have a particular insight into that because the world of design is very individualistic and subjective. And now the difference in a pandemic is that those kinds of individualistic, subjective answers are leading to life and death decisions in some ways.


POSTREL: Well, so again, going back to my original theme, I think the idea of trying to find as many ways as possible to accommodate that individualism within sort of the individual, if you will pleasure and meaning along with the collective function is a one approach to that. And I understand the need or the desire to have simple messages, but I think it’s unfortunate for example, that there’s now this message that you shouldn’t wear a cloth mask, because that’s true, you shouldn’t wear a mask that is just cloth, because a woven cloth, because woven or knitted cloth has a lot of holes in it. But if you wear a cloth mask with two layers of cloth that have a filter in between, that’s comparable to wearing, you know, a surgical mask, say, because of that filter, which is that non-woven cloth, where you have little fibers that are put together in a somewhat way so that they overlap and they block much more. So then you’ve got three layers, you’ve got your two woven or knitted layers, and then you’ve got that non-woven layer. And that is the critical layer. And that’s what these other types of masks are. They’re non-woven.


HEFFNER: In the minutes we have left. How do you speculate that fashion and fabric will evolve, you know, as we move towards, out of the pandemic? I mean, because people’s comfort level has dramatically increased in their expectations to be frequently comfortable. Some of us may have abided by that theory a long time ago. But how, how do you speculate based on a history that’s going to?


POSTREL: Yes. So one thing that I write in the book is that the that for the first time ever in history, knitted garments have overtaken woven garments. And I see that as continuing and partly that is the comfort thing, because knits stretch in multiple directions. And that’s why you have, you know, your knitted leggings, as opposed to your tight jeans or your knitted t-shirt as to your, or polo shirt, as opposed to a woven shirt, like the one you’re wearing. But it’s also technological because there’s some advances in computer-driven knitting that are making it more possible to knit garments in a way that conserves on inventories where it’s more as needed, somewhat more customized, all of these kinds of things. So, so that coming out of the pandemic, you know, even before the pandemic, knits were beating wovens, and the pandemic has only accelerated that process. So that one of the things that I see happening in the world of fabric and fibers.


HEFFNER: And, and beyond woven and knit. And that question, do you think that there will be any change in, in the sort of death definition of formality or formal dress versus informal dress?


POSTREL: Well, again, that’s the process we’ve been going through. It will be interesting to see. I could, the obvious thing is to say we’ve already gone less formal. This knits thing is part of that because knit garments tend to be less crisp and more form fitting stretchy, forgiving if you will. But I could imagine a backlash. I wouldn’t see it right away, but I could imagine in 10 years, people would decide, you know, I’m bored with this. I want to have, you know, rigidly constructed, tailored clothes that look special. So fashion is hard to predict. The only way, you know, what’s in fashion is, you have a bunch of people trying things and one of them, or another hits, and that, that becomes the next fashion.


HEFFNER: Well, I look forward to continuing this exchange with you, and because I’m really interested, we’re out of time and the fashion correlations between, you know, democracy, authoritarianism, and,


POSTREL: Oh, they’re very big. Yeah. Fashion is a very democratic phenomenon. As countries have become more democratic, more egalitarian, fashion has assumed a greater and greater role. And, where fashion comes from has also changed coming from the bottom up, as opposed to the top down.


HEFFNER: Virginia Postrel, author of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World. Thank you so much for joining me today.


POSTREL: Thank you.


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