A definitive guide to mask fashion on Capitol Hill
From Nancy Pelosi’s high-end picks to Don Bacon’s bacon mask, Congress is trying to figure this out
When Nancy Pelosi spoke at a recent press conference, words came out of her mouth, but they also jumped off her mask, which she pulled down beneath her chin. The label on the fabric said “donna lewis,” in letters big enough for the TV cameras to see.
Like everyone in politics this spring, Pelosi is dealing with an unexpected fashion question: When the mask is suddenly the message, what kind do you wear?
For the Democratic speaker of the House, the answer is clear: one that goes with your outfit. This particular mask came from the same boutique just outside Washington where she buys a lot of her designer suits. “Continuity is possible,” it seemed to announce.
Others are trying something new. Of course, a few in Congress aren’t wearing masks at all, ignoring the advice of health experts and following the example of the country’s most visible holdout, Donald Trump. But most are strapping them on as recommended during the pandemic, and style at the Capitol has never looked like this.
The sports fan. The soaring eagle. The homespun. The standard issue. The business as usual. The “I’m still figuring this out.” At least six approaches to mask-wearing have emerged as lawmakers return to Washington in the age of coronavirus, struggling to get the etiquette right and trying to decide which is worse — treating the mask like a fun new accessory or treating it like a chore.
Here are some of the highlights so far, as captured by CQ Roll Call photographers Bill Clark and Tom Williams.
The sports fan
If you talk for a living, covering your mouth with a blank piece of fabric isn’t ideal. At worst it’s intimidating. At best it’s boring.
Enter the sports fan. This type of mask-wearer has taken the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with Congress’ own attending physician, and turned it into a chance to brag on their hometown team.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts is repping his New England Patriots, while Sen. Richard C. Shelby reminds us, not so subtly, that he’s loyal to the Alabama Crimson Tide. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hails from Kentucky, but he’s spent enough time in Washington that he looks pretty comfortable in a Nationals face mask. “This squad has to be hands-down the most athletic, most resilient, most team-spirited bunch of ballplayers this city has ever had,” he said in October after the team won its first World Series.
Before the pandemic, lawmakers mostly relied on neckties to break up the monotony of Capitol Hill’s professional uniform. If a congressman really wanted to have fun, he could lift up his pant leg and show a whimsical dress sock. Utah Rep. John Curtis explained it this way a few years ago, reflecting on his collection of about 300 socks: “They made me approachable. … It was a fun thing. People who would otherwise not know how to approach me would come up and say, ‘Let me see your socks.’”
Now that’s changed. By plastering their chosen teams across their faces, lawmakers are tapping into the current yearning for baseball and football to come back, but they’re also testing out a new vehicle for personal flair.
The difference between a “fun” pair of socks and a “fun” mask? Only one is hard to miss.
The soaring eagle
Bald eagles and patriotic hues have become a top choice in Congress during the pandemic, much as American flag lapel pins did after 9/11.
On the face of Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, an eagle flies through a sky of red, white and blue. Sen. Tim Scott wears a similar mask, made by a staffer’s aunt. “She specifically wanted to give it to the senator to keep him safe,” says a spox for the South Carolina Republican. “They pray for him and the whole office to stay well every day.”
There are plenty of local patriots too, advertising their home states with the same emblems and animals that might be found on a souvenir shot glass.
Two Republican senators have gone all in on state pride. Lisa Murkowski has more than one Alaska-themed mask, teeming with wildlife, while Martha McSally wears the red and yellow stripes that Arizonians know well.
Whether it’s one state or the entire country, now is a good time to rally around the flag and express a sense of optimism.
A fair number of lawmakers are taking the homespun approach, wearing masks cranked out with love on someone’s sewing machine. If the fabric is a little uneven, that’s all part of the charm. Plus, you can use it as a conversation starter, a chance to tell a story or give a shoutout to whoever made it.
Rep. Don Bacon gets asked about one of his all the time — not the mask with the American flags (though he has one of those too), but the one featuring little pieces of bacon. The Nebraska Republican’s sister-in-law made if for him as a “fun surprise,” he tells Heard on the Hill. “I definitely get noticed with it on.”
For Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, it’s his wife, Mylene, who gets credit for his rustic batik-y gear. “Don’t be fooled by the orange color of the mask,” the Republican says. “It has nothing to do with the Oregon State Beavers.” (“Go Ducks!” he adds.)
The standard issue
If they weren’t in the mood for any of that, lawmakers could grab basic disposable masks as they headed into votes at the Capitol this month, thanks to tables set up for that purpose.
McConnell has worn disposable masks, and so has his counterpart in the minority, Chuck Schumer. One draw is the convenience, since they don’t have to be washed “routinely” (or at all), as the CDC recommends for fabric coverings.
While someone like South Dakota’s John Thune or Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler can manage to look polished while wearing one, disposable masks have downsides. They can be scratchy, smelly and easily rumpled. And wearing anything even vaguely clinical in the present environment might not sit right with constituents, since the CDC has urged the public to opt for coverings made out of cloth.
Last but not least, a bland disposable mask doesn’t exactly scream “approachable” or “brimming with personality,” especially if the fit is wrong or it’s sliding down your nose. Instead, it makes you look like you’re trying (and failing) to impersonate a dental hygienist.
The business as usual
Of all the masks spotted on Capitol Hill this month, Pelosi’s collection is both the most extensive and the least intrusive. By sticking with the same fabrics and prints she would wear on an ordinary day, the speaker has managed to make her press conferences and TV appearances feel relatively normal.
“She’s been shopping with me for almost 20 years now,” says Chris Lewis, who remembers her coming into his store back then “with some friends of hers.” He and his wife own donna lewis, the Old Town Alexandria boutique where Pelosi bought several of her masks.
“There’s a solid pink one that she wore with a powder pink suit,” he tells Heard on the Hill. “I thought that was gorgeous.”
Others thought so too, including the reigning pantsuit expert herself, Hillary Clinton, who celebrated the choice on Instagram. “Leader of the House majority, and of mask-to-pantsuit color coordination,” the former first lady, senator and secretary of State wrote alongside a photo of Pelosi looking glam.
Whatever else they might have in common, the two women share a long history of being scrutinized for their style choices in a political world dominated by men. When Pelosi appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal earlier this month and got asked about her masks (“Are you making a fashion statement?”), she dodged the question and moved on, like she usually does when asked about her clothes.
Fashion statement or no, her masks seem designed to go the distance, which is probably a good thing given that people might be covering their faces at the Capitol for a long time to come. Using fabrics they had on hand, tailors worked in-house to make the masks, which go for $22 a piece, says Lewis, who has pledged to donate one to charity for each he sells. His favorites include a “green botanical one that looks like palm trees,” which Pelosi wore on Thursday, and a rich blue one with impressionistic checks.
When you have to put on a mask, “this is a nice mask to put on,” says Lewis.
The ‘I’m still figuring this out’
When Sen. Tim Kaine wore a series of bandanas earlier this month, the Virginia Democrat sparked a bunch of Wild West memes in the process. “Tim Kaine’s Bandana Is The New Sheriff In Town,” went one DCist headline.
He’s not the only one using improvised gear. Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, for example, was spotted in April with a scarf pulled over her nose, wrapped around a few extra times.
And then there’s Sen. Rand Paul. His “face covering” looks like a scruffy beard he grew in quarantine at home after testing positive for the coronavirus, because it is. When the Republican appeared at the Capitol in May, he told reporters he doesn’t plan to wear a mask.
“I have immunity,” Paul said, though health experts caution that little is definitively known about the novel coronavirus and immunity. “I’ve already had the virus, so I can’t get it again and I can’t give it to anybody.”
He’s not breaking any rules. While many employees at the Capitol must now wear masks in the course of their jobs, it’s still a suggestion, not a requirement, for members of Congress. By going mask-free, Paul can skip all the hard and uncomfortable parts. He doesn’t have to worry about elastic digging into his ears or fabric muffling his voice. He doesn’t have to worry about logistical headaches, like removing it for speeches or touching it too much.
Meanwhile, his colleagues are doing all that and more, with mixed results. This is by far the largest mask-wearing category, in Congress and around the country: “I’m still figuring this out.”