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Q&A: Grad assistant creates face covering based on beaked, plague doctor mask


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Hannah Gulick, a graduate assistant at the Museum of Cultural and Natural History, shows off her mask that she uses during this pandemic.

Because of the face covering she wears in public, Hannah Gulick stands out in a crowd of masked people.

When out and about, Gulick wears a full-face, hand-made reinterpretation of the masks plague doctors used during the Bubonic Plague. 

The beaked mask is made of veg tan leather and is equipped with metal hardware and rivets. The mask was also dyed black and red with red lenses in the eyepieces.

While the mask is not worn on the job, Gulick said it's still one of her favorite and most comfortable masks. 

Yes, sometimes the mask gets in the way because of the long beak. However, the Museum of Cultural and Natural History graduate assistant said the way she expresses herself and her style through the mask makes up for the inconvenience.

“I like to be unique,” Gulick said. “I like letting my freak flag fly when I can.”

Central Michigan Life spoke with Gulick about her inspiration behind the mask and the encounters she has experienced with other people while wearing it. 

What exactly is your mask? On what is it based?

It is a modern reinterpretation of a historical plague doctor mask. 

During the Black Death and onsets of the bubonic plague, doctors who weren't really doctors would walk around with the masks on. They were supposedly stuffing it with herbs or things to help block the smell of death, which is why the noses are so long. 

They would also serve as protection. That style has been reinterpreted, obviously I don't shove things in the big part of mine. And, it's got some breathing holes on it, but that was the original inspiration.

How did you come up with this idea?

I belong to a group of leather workers on Facebook, and people started sharing this kind of plague doctor style mask. I thought it was super cool. Then, some people started sharing patterns. I just kind of found what I liked. 

I like being unique and expressive in my crafting, so I figured that was the way to go about it.

How long did it take you to make it?

I spread it out over three days because you have to let the dye sit before you start stitching it together and putting all the hardware in. My guess would be maybe ten hours. It was the first time I had done one, so it probably took me longer since I had to pick up some different stitching techniques.

Have you made any for other people?

Just my husband. He has another full-face mask. It's just a different color with different colored hardware and he doesn't have the red acrylic lenses like mine does. Then, my brother has asked for one, which I haven't started yet. That's going to be his Christmas present.

How do you maintain and clean your mask?

There's not really a good way to clean it. I've looked it up. I think if I was really conscious about it what I would end up doing is wear a cloth mask and then I'd wear that one over it, but that’s probably a little excessive. Because it's leather, it doesn't really get dirty. If I wanted to, I could use saddle soap on it. I don't wear it for extensive periods of time though, so I think that kind of helps maintain it.

Is this your only mask or do you have backups?

I have about 15 different masks. I have that one, I have one that just has a beak on the bottom half. I have another leather one that I made which I don't wear as much because it's not as comfortable. My mom makes masks for people, and whenever she gets a cool fabric, she'll show it to me and I ask if she can make me one from that material. I have a bunch of different kinds that have all sorts of different fabrics and all sorts of different patterns on them that she's made for me.

Is the bird mask comfortable?

It's my favorite one to wear. The buckles and the straps kind of sit on the back of your head, so nothing is pulling at the ears like the traditional cotton ones. There’s nothing sitting right on your nose either. Because of all the breathing holes, the lenses don't fog up. There's something comfortable about the fact that it's not really touching my face. 

Do you wear this mask to work?

I usually wear the cotton ones to work. That's more so because -- this could have changed, I'm not sure -- when I was an undergraduate at CMU there was a university policy that said you're not allowed to wear full mask face coverings on campus. I just assume that it is still in place. And because I work on campus, I don't wear it to work.

What do you want your mask to say about you to other people?

I made it because I like expressing myself through my clothing and through the things that I wear. This is a really good way to express myself. I also do live action role-playing, and I have played dungeons and dragons. I have a closet full of costumes and props and things that I've made, so it's this natural way for me to go with it. 

For me, it’s like, "Look at this cool thing I made." I get to wear it because we're in the middle of a pandemic. It's not quite as weird for me to go out in public with this on. But also, stay away from me.

Have you seen anyone else with this sort of mask?

No, around here I haven't seen people. The other people in my leather crafting group have obviously made similar ones. I've had people tell me that they had similar ideas or they wanted to know where I got mine. But, I made mine, so I can't tell them where to go and buy it.

What do people say about your mask?

They'll say it's really cool and they really like it. However, I have also seen people pointing at me and whispering about me behind my back when I've got it on because they think I'm not looking. We do the Walmart grocery pickup where we just drive and they put it in the back of our truck. Originally, I would have to get out and open the trunk and I would get out and I'd be wearing that mask. I have seen people in the car next to me sneak their phone up and take a picture. I don't really care. I am kind of used to getting looks, because when I was a freshman commuting to campus, I drove a minivan. My minivan was black and it had a dragon painted down the side. People would always watch as I drove by in that, or they'd watch me go to that car. I was also in a live-action role playing RSO on campus and for that it's very common to put on a costume or dress up. I've dressed up for Halloween when I worked on campus and I had red contacts that I would wear, so it’s whatever.

Does anyone that you have talked to know the reference of your mask?

I don't know. My assumption has been yes. They know what it's supposed to be and what it represents but I don't know for sure. I feel like the image is kind of iconic and has come up in pop culture. I've seen little plush toys that are coming out now that are little plague doctors, and so that image has kind of been circulating the internet since it's all started.

Does the beak ever get in the way?

So much, but I don't regret it. It'll smack on the edge of the car when I have tried to get in or out and it really hurts. I've moved my hand to make a gesture or to grab something big enough to smack it.

Is it hard to see?

I do lose my peripheral vision for the most part when I'm wearing it. Other than that, I don't have much trouble. I do kind of wish that I hadn't put the acrylic lenses in it because the acrylic lenses are red. With that, everything turns red when I wear it which isn't too bad. But when I'm going to the store and I'm trying to find a certain type of grocery, I realized how much I rely on the color of packaging to figure out what things are.

What is your most memorable interaction with someone else while wearing your mask?

I remember being in probably Walmart and these two people thought it was really cool and they asked me about it. My husband and I were wearing the same style so you could tell that we were together because we had the masks on. They thought it was really cool. I've had people ask me how I made it. I do enjoy talking about it because it's not often I get to show off that weirdness part of me.

Did your love/interest of history inspire this idea in a way?

Oh yeah, completely. I think it was made better because it has a historical reference. The iconography has been adopted into steampunk culture, which I am also a fan of. I love the historical reference to it and it kind of has some dark humor going on because the Black Death was not exactly a fun time but here we are throwing it back.

Does it ever help with social distancing?

Yeah, I like to think that people give me a wide berth because they wonder what is going on with that person or why do they look like that. I had a plan and this plan does not come to fruition, but I do have a pattern for a wide brimmed hat to kind of go with the mask and then I've printed a symbol that goes with the plague doctor, an hourglass with wings, and which represents how time is fleeting. That symbol is often on a staff or something that a doctor would wear. I have that, and I want to put it together. I already have a trench coat too.

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