The gas mask, an absolute necessity since World War One, has since become
something more than a method of keeping breathable air in the lungs, it has become a symbol of power. There was no coincidence in Stephen Spielberg choosing to have Darth Vader, the villain of all villains, don a huge and intimidating respirator as part of his characterization. The lack of human features coupled with the rasping, ragged breath and hissing speech caused by the device was an effective method of developing the character as dangerous and inherently evil. You saw him in the black suit and cape, hissing and staring wildly with those black shiny eye lenses, and you knew - for sure - that you didn't want to mess with that guy. It should be no surprise then that gas masks have found their way into the fetish and BDSM community. The gas mask is perfect in so many ways for achieving different methods of "play" within kink society. The glossy black plastic matches well with latex, the airtight fit offers the opportunity for breath play, and the power exchange opportunities are obvious. The eyeholes can be covered for sensory deprivation, and the entire effect of the mask in general is one of dehumanization. It is the same principal that assault teams utilize in wearing balaclavas when preparing to attack, the lack of facial features give the enemy the illusion of fighting something unknown, dehumanization strikes terror in one's heart; bringing back, if for only a moment, the fear of monsters in the closet.
The icon of the gas mask has come to represent, more than anything else, the coming of the nuclear age. It is an ever present reminder of the fallibility and volatility of human life and is indicative of the condition of one's own environment becoming a threat to that life. strangely, there is a macabre fascination with that fallibility, and it is not restricted to American culture either. Consider the popular Japanese photograph of the nineteen thirties, a time before the nuclear attacks, entitled "Gas Mask Parade". The message it sends is clear, that the population is dehumanized, powerless, and serving as cogs in the machine. Though there are several icons of the nuclear age, none seem to carry the effect that the gas mask has. Possibly this is due to the civilianization of the gas mask. The one item that was mass produced and issued en masse to the world population during times of conflict. It was a tangible object which promised the dangers of a coming war.