If we were previewed a snapshot of masked-up Irish society now back in January, we would have been intrigued, perturbed and probably frightened.
How quickly perceptions can change. Masks are now seen as protective rather than threatening; badges of civic responsibility rather than the dystopian disguise of the villain. Covid-19 has given masks a new respectability - now royalty, rock stars, celebrities and politicians are endorsing the wearing of masks as an act of communal solidarity.
In the West, generally, we have been squeamish about medical masks, unlike in Asia where masks have enjoyed popularity as both streetwear and personal protection since the Sars outbreak two decades ago.
The acceptance of masks in Asia can be traced back to 1910 when Chinese authorities adopted masks to prevent the spread of pneumonic plague.
Eight years later, they were again adopted widely during the Spanish flu outbreak. So when Sars broke out in 2002, the resurgence of medical masks had both deep cultural and historic precedents that were rooted in health awareness and civic duty.
In Asian society, it is simply considered polite to wear a mask and keep your germs to yourself. Masks became so ubiquitous that they were adopted as an accessory that could be customised and commercialised - in South Korea they have been worn widely by K-Pop boy bands such as BTS, who have branded versions as part of their merchandise offering.
Bestselling fashion author Dana Thomas predicted recently: "Masks are going to become fashion items. We'll wear them like glasses, or T-shirts, or even handbags, and we'll choose them to make statements."
Certainly, wearing a mask can have a radically liberating effect, as the alter ego indulges in behaviour that the unmasked would never indulge. In ancient history, both the Greek Bacchanalia and the Dionysus Cult allowed mask wearers to behave outside the norms of society without retribution.
Fashion designers have understood this transformative power of masks and have deployed them regularly to add a mystery to their creations: Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Thierry Mugler and Karl Lagerfeld have all used masks as striking and subversive accessories.
McQueen had a particular love of masks, relishing their potential to disturb and provoke; notable examples of his use of masks include the infamous crucifix mask from the Dante collection of 1996 and a red lace mask that enclosed the model's entire face and head, from his Joan collection of 1998.
UK designer Richard Quinn recently featured a latex mask with his beautiful floral dresses, while French designer Marine Serre has featured anti-pollution masks since 2019.
Thomas has explained: "A mask creates a barrier between you and the world. It protects you, but it also means that you can't get close to someone."
That masks have this dual quality, both shielding us yet blocking intimacy, seems a fitting contradiction for our fractured world. Serre's use of masks was originally inspired by concerns around air pollution and environmental degradation - smog couture - but has now pivoted to include anxieties about Covid-19.
The pollution that millions of disposable masks may create in our oceans and landfills is another environmental concern - the long after-life of medical masks that will take years to degrade is an unfortunate legacy of the pandemic.
Society's relationship with masks, however, predates pandemics and fashion trends - it has been a central element of diverse cultures for millennia. The earliest use of masks was for rituals and ceremonies, with the oldest found dating from 7,000BC. Ancient civilisations understood that the act of putting on a mask can be protective, defiant or threatening, but always transformative.
From masks worn to conceal identity to those adopted to assume another identity, masks can symbolise different elements of the human psyche. They have been worn in many diverse contexts: wars, rituals, ceremonies, fashion, the arts, theatre, sports, in death and as now, for protective medical purposes.
They can confer mystery, allure or power. They can disguise or disfigure but have been an integral and enduring element of man's exploration of ideas around identity and the self.
In African and Native American culture, masks are intrinsic to ancient rituals - they are used to communicate with ancestral spirits, animal spirits, or in healing and coming-of-age rites. In both the East and West, theatre masks are a staple of dramatic events: the ancient Roman Twin Masks of tragedy and comedy; Shakespeare's use of disguises and masks in his plays, and traditional Japanese Noh plays performed entirely in stylised masks.
The mask also has associations with popular celebrations and festivals such as the Venice Carnival (which dates back to 1268), Halloween masks and the ornate masks worn by Mexican wrestlers to symbolise their professional personas.
In Ancient Rome, the word 'persona' literally meant a mask. Alternatively, masks can be punitive - examples of this include The Man in the Iron Mask, the scold's bridle (an iron muzzle which was an instrument of punishment and public humiliation used on nagging women) and the gimp mask associated with BDSM.
Due to their visual impact and narrative possibilities, masks have starred frequently in films: concealed super-heroes including Batman, Spider-Man and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; or heroes such as Zorro, Maximus Decimus Meridius in Gladiator and the Lone Ranger; and villains including Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader, have all hidden their faces for dramatic effect. The mask can be either a tool to transform man to superman, or a literal shield to conceal evil intent.
It can also conceal deformity and disease, for example The Elephant Man, The Phantom of the Opera and the central character in the 1985 movie, The Mask, who had lionitis. And then there is the rich vein of masks in horror films like Friday the 13th, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
The horror of a mask can be about what it symbolises as well as what it conceals; Hannibal Lecter appeared singularly terrifying because of that restraining mask with the barred mouth, which suggested his cannibalism.
Masks can also be seductive. Audrey Hepburn's mask in How to Steal a Million must be one of the most stylish masks ever - it was designed by Hubert Givenchy.
The elaborate Venetian masks worn in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut added to both the sinister and erotic atmosphere. While Catwoman's feline face covering was stunning, despite Michelle Pfeiffer's admission that the latex mask both crushed her face and choked her.
Masks have also been adopted by protest and anti-government movements: see the Ku Klux Klan and the Guy Fawkes masks worn by the Anonymous movement. They allow common citizens to protest without fear of reprisal or arrest. In Hong Kong, the Pro-Democracy movement adopted face coverings as a political symbol, both to conceal faces against CCTV surveillance and to protect from tear gas.
When the authorities attempted to ban these black masks they unwittingly boosted their popularity, elevated them to a symbol of popular resistance and made them cool.
For now, the mask is the new slogan T-shirt - individuals are using them to communicate a message. See Hilary Clinton's 'Vote' mask; the array of masks available on Etsy, from 'Trump 2020' to those featuring Joe Biden's face; to the fashion editions being sold on Amazon.
Masks are being increasingly used as personal billboards - you may not be able to speak succinctly while wearing one, but you can still make yourself heard with slogans, symbols and images.
Even the act of wearing a mask makes a statement - see Dr Fauci's adoption of a medical mask during press conferences while Trump refused to wear one, or Billie Eilish's Gucci mask worn to the Grammys in January, which expressed her conviction that her face and body belong to herself, not the mass media.
Wearing a mask now denotes civic responsibility, compassion and doing the right thing. During the initial stages of the virus, luxury goods brands LVMH, Burberry and Prada pivoted production to masks in a philanthropic gesture of support towards medical staff.
This autumn/winter, designer collections will feature more fashionable face masks very prominently. By infusing a medical necessity with aspiration, and thereby creating a new niche accessory category, the fashion industry will try to regain luxury sales lost during lockdown.
Expect to see branded masks from big-name luxury players on your social media feeds very soon (Fendi are currently offering a silk version that retails at €190). Making masks fashionable needn't necessarily be a bad development if it helps to normalise them and make people less nervous about wearing them. It might also promote a feeling of societal solidarity and a real sense of people protecting each other.
That masks can run the gamut from utilitarian to glamorous may reflect our fractured world but they will be increasingly visible as commercial and social life resume.
Not being able to see another human's face is an uneasy interaction because we value facial expression and communication so highly. Normally to conceal the face, even partially, is unsettling, but now we need to negotiate those reservations and embrace masks as an essential accessory.
When future generations look back at photos of 2020 the year of the Covid-19 pandemic, what will strike them will be the masks worn by all. Just as we once wondered about the mask-wearing people in sepia photos of 1918, so our grandchildren will try to imagine what the era of Covid-19 was truly like.
We might reply: scary, claustrophobic and sweaty, but for now masking up is non-negotiable. Please wear a mask.