New article: Masks, PPE and early women motorists

We have a new article in Sociology journal. Open Access PDF available here.

From 100-year-old women’s motoring masks to contemporary PPE:  A socio-political study of persistent problems and inventive possibilities

By Kat & Katja

Abstract: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, personal protective equipment became central to daily news. Face masks may have been critical, but they were clearly not equally designed or distributed, compelling many health workers to make their own. These issues are neither new nor specific to health-oriented fields. We offer insights from another case of individuals taking personal protective equipment into their own hands. We analyse patents for women’s motoring face masks invented in the USA, Canada, England and France (1900–1925). Our findings suggest that women invented and wore face masks not only to drive safely, but to position themselves as legitimate motorists and as citizens with equal rights to technology, public space and resources at the turn of the last century. We propose that a study of historic motoring face masks might offer insights into persistent problems and inventive possibilities relating to contemporary personal protective equipment.

Mask patents have always fascinated us here at POP. There are a huge number of them in the patent archive for all types of bodies and for a range of activities from dust protectors for domestic use and protective masks for medical personnel, miners and firefighter to sun protectors for lounging by the beach.  

An image of a woman with dark curly hair with the POP instagram mask filter on her face.

The POP Instagram Mask Filter

And of course, Covid put an unprecedented spotlight on masks and PPE for the face. In previous blog posts, we shared some of our research into mask patents. We experimented with a digital mask filter on Instagram as a way to experience historic mask patents.  

Historic clothing patent archives provide a rich record of inventive individuals taking PPE into their own hands

Masks are mundane and highly visible political artefacts in contemporary civic life. Yet, materials to cover the face are neither new nor far from controversy. Historic clothing patent archives provide a rich record of inventive individuals taking PPE (personal protective equipment) into their own hands not only for reasons of safety and physical protection, but also for socio-political purposes.  

PPE is defined as ‘clothing for specialist protection’. Along with vaccines, spatial distancing and the washing of hands, face masks became a key health measure in the global response to COVID-19. In this article we locate our sociological contribution in relation to the broader context of PPE research by drawing specific attention to analyses of masks, not only as critical health technology but also of acts of civic participation.
We focus on a subset of 60 patents from 1900-1925 for face masks for early automobilists, about half of which were patented by women. Although small and concealing by nature, we argue that inventions like these are revealing for the expansive socio-political possibilities they offered wearers attempting to carve out new freedoms and express themselves as independent, modern citizens.

Materials to cover the face are neither new nor far from controversy.

Camille and Gabrielle Nouard’s 1903 patent for ‘A Lady’s Head Covering and Mask for use on Motor Cars’ (GB190307049A).

We explore historic motoring masks as tools of resistance to restrictive norms of femininity.

This article takes clothing inventions as a starting point to explore how women invented and wore early motoring masks not only to drive safely, but also to position themselves as legitimate motorists, respectable women and as citizens with equal rights to public space and resources at the turn of the last century.

Motoring veils were an essential accessory for early women automobilists. Early automobiles were roofless so drivers were exposed to the weather as well as the dirt of the road. Drivers also needed to possess a range of technical skills in order to successfully operate early motorcars and, for example, deal with the car breaking down on the road. Women drivers faced much discrimination as they were deemed too unskilled to drive.

Women had to drive well and negotiate often highly regulated boundaries between being appropriately dressed to drive, repair and maintain a complicated machine while adhering to social expectations about feminine appearance in contexts firmly coded as masculine. How women gained access to these new spaces, negotiated deep-rooted tensions and came up with inventive workarounds to expand and question conventional gendered boundaries are central to this article.


A historic image of a women wearing a motoring veil kneeling down next to an open-roof classic car to the check the tyre valve.

An image of an automobilist fixing a tyre valve in 1905 article in The Lady’s Realm by Gladys Beattie Crozier.

Along with a range of scholars in critical citizenship studies like Isin and Neilson (2008); Hildebrandt et al. (2019), Netz et al. (2019) and Sheller (2012), we draw on expanded understandings of citizenship beyond the traditional legal nation state/passport model as something that is not just granted or bestowed.  

Rather, citizenship is enacted and performed through a range of acts and practices that enable citizens to claim rights, privileges and entitlements that they are otherwise denied.  

Objects, as Isin argues, can play an important role in these practices. He speaks of ‘doing rights with things’ (2019: 52). In our article, we explore motoring veils as objects that enable women to claim new modern, mobile and technological competent identities in public space. 

Our research looks at contemporary PPE discussions through a socio-historic lens.

We argue that historic mask inventors creatively reimagined a common garment for women, the motoring mask, into a tool of resistance to restrictive norms of femininity. As a result, early women motorists were able to not only claim a professional identity as drivers but also gained increased freedom of movement in public space in unprecedented ways. They took their PPE into their own hands because of a lack of provision for them.  

We relate these historic materials to contemporary issues.  We locate our analyses in relation to PPE research to expand ideas about face masks from health-oriented purposes to political protest and resistance.

The PPE crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how many people still need to do this. Much commercial PPE is designed for a body which tends to be a specifically shaped male one and fits far less well on women, non-binary people or other types of male bodies (Criado-Perez, 2019). To protect themselves, and by extension their households, many health workers have had to hack and creatively adjust existing PPE.  

Our article seeks to highlight the adaptability and creativity of designs, suggesting that a diversity of inventors generates a plethora of possibilities for a broader range of wear and wearers. The data renders visible the often-invisible work and inventive material practices that go into participating in socio-political worlds for some, that comes more easily to others. They show how people are often forced into ‘doing rights with things’ rather than doing things with rights (Isin, 2019:52).


Beattie Crozier A (1905) Practical motoring for ladies. The Lady’s Realm, p.573. Images used with permission by the Women’s Library, London School of Economics.  

Clarsen G (2008) Eat My Dust: Early Women Motorists. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.  

Criado-Perez C (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for MenLondon: Chatto & Windus. 

Hildebrandt P, Evert K, Peters S, Schaub M, Wildner K, and Ziemer G (eds) (2019) Performing Citizenship: Bodies, Agencies, Limitations. Palgrave Macmillan.  

Isin E (2019) Doing rights with things: The art of becoming citizen. In: Hildebrandt P et al. (eds) Performing Citizenship: Bodies, Agencies, Limitations. Germany: Palgrave Macmillan, 45-56.  

Isin E and Neilson G (eds) (2008) Acts of Citizenship. London and New York: Zed Books. 

Netz, Sabine, Sarah Lempp, Kristine Krause, and Katharina Schramm. 2019. “Claiming Citizenship Rights through the Body Multiple.” Citizenship Studies 23 (7): 637–51.  

Sheller, Mimi. 2012. Citizenship from below Erotic Agency and Caribbean Freedom. Durham: Duke University Press.