Heather Akou (Indiana University, Bloomington, United States). Service-Industry Uniforms and the Symbolism(s) of Wearing a Mask
When the first cases of COVID-19 started showing up in the United States, the CDC and the Surgeon General argued that the general public should not wear masks because they were ‘ineffective’ and more desperately needed by healthcare workers. As states shut down and certain industries were declared ‘essential’ (grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, gas stations, etc...), workers began asking their employers for permission to wear masks. In many cases, they were denied. This presentation, part of a larger stream of my research about the history of service-industry uniforms in the United States, explores why these denials occurred. Some employers argued that COVID was a hoax, that wearing a mask would cause panic among the customers, or that employees would have to wait until they could get corporate approval or buy enough for all of their employees to wear. These decisions were informed by the underlying functions and legal implications of uniforms, but also cultural stereotypes about ‘bad guys’ and illness.