As the country moves toward reopening, masks are assuredly part of our future. And in some ways, their evolution is the perfect encapsulation of how much life has changed in a blink of an eye — and how challenging, both intellectually and emotionally, it will be for us to go forward.
“The question about face masks is how will they morally change us? To some extent the answer depends on our motivation for wearing them,” says Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University. “If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear. Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.
“But if you are wearing the mask to protect others, wearing it will create a feeling of connection to those in your community,” she says. “You’ll see others wearing masks as a sartorial sign that they are willing to sacrifice some freedom and comfort for the common good.”
“The meaning we give to these masks matters.”
In the beginning, which is to say in March, our experts said that healthy civilians didn't need to wear face masks. A nonmedical mask was superfluous because it could not protect the wearer from the microscopic droplets on which the virus traveled. The only purpose was to prevent the wearer from coughing and sneezing the infection on others — and if one was displaying those sorts of symptoms, you really shouldn't be out in the world.
In Paris, crowded international fashion shows were still unfurling as scheduled. A few design houses offered guests disposable masks — presented on a tasteful tray held by a handsome young usher at the entrance, the way a waiter might offer a glass of champagne. Unlike with bubbly, there were few takers. Those who did slip on a mask were rarely American and most often from Asia, where wearing a mask isn’t a matter of fear or paranoia, but consideration for others. Consideration.
Yet even in Paris, the center of the fashion universe, the masks were basic. White. Black. (Surely you didn’t think they’d be as awful as institutional blue?) Disposable.
By early April, a good Samaritan army of fashion industry workers was stitching up masks for first responders. They too were straightforward, generic. It didn’t matter who was creating the masks — whether it was Louis Vuitton reinventing its leather-goods factories or independent entrepreneurs in New York or Los Angeles opening up their small ateliers. There were no logos. Function was the only consideration.
Designer Christian Siriano was using a pattern issued by the New York governor’s office, and Fashion Girls for Humanity — a nonprofit organization founded in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan — offered downloadable patterns and construction information gathered from medical professionals.
Soon, however, function met form. That same month, the CDC changed course and advised everyone to wear a mask in public. The fashion industry fully committed to the effort. If a shopper goes to Etsy, there are — at last count — 250 pages of colorful, patterned nonmedical masks to click through. Neighborhood blogs are filled with offers from home sewers willing to stitch up distinctive masks for locals.
There are masks for every taste and budget. Some are printed with Edvard Munch-like open-mouthed screams. Goth masks mimic skeletal jaws. Disney is offering a preorder on four-packs of masks featuring its signature characters. High-end versions are constructed from fine Italian fabrics that really should be hand-washed rather than thrown into the Maytag. Others are covered in sequins. Some masks look to be so dense that they’d impede breathing; nonetheless, they’re stunning.
Almost all of them come with a promise of a charitable donation or a reassurance that no one is profiting . . . too much.
That’s the unwritten rule, so far. Ronald van der Kemp unveiled one-of-a-kind masks in Amsterdam to benefit refugees. Some of them were more like fantastical, all-encompassing millinery than mere masks, as they were resplendent with gold chains, pearl-like beads and flowers. A designer is allowed to recoup expenses — materials and labor.
But there was a social media firestorm when images showed masks from Off-White, the coveted men’s streetstyle brand, selling online for as high as $1,205. (The masks were subsequently removed for price gouging.) Before the pandemic, Off-White’s fashion masks were selling to its style-forward customers for about $100, which is still quite expensive for two rectangles of cloth about the size of a pocket paperback.
But fashion pricing has never been based on actual value. It’s calculated based on perceived value, which is driven by desire, status and rarity. Nonmedical masks have worth because of their function. We’re not yearning for them. As a culture, we are just edging our way out of denial about what the near future holds and mincing our way to acceptance. And perhaps, the more stylish the masks become, the more willing people will be to put them on.
“I see people wearing masks for a while,” predicts New York designer Eugenia Kim. And if people have to wear them, if they have to have this piece of cloth front and center on their face, why not make the best of the situation? “They’re obviously functional, but I think they can be uplifting.”
She compares these fashion masks to T-shirts. Useful and common, yet endlessly variable. And enduring.
Kim is a milliner. The addition of masks to her collection took less than a week from concept to e-commerce. And after about a week selling online, she’s moved about 1,000 masks, with the most favored version a sequined one for $20.
“It used to be that we really only saw tourists wearing them,” Kim says, referring to visitors from Asia. “Now, we are those people.”
There may be no other piece of clothing that has had a trajectory like face masks — something that began as purely protective transforming into a fashion statement in no time at all.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Patricia Mears, deputy director of the Museum at FIT.
The closest comparison that comes to her mind is the parka. What began as lifesaving covering in Inuit culture took thousands of years to evolve into what is now a staple of winter life. Masks in various forms have also been around for centuries, but we’ve been drawn mostly to admiring their aesthetics or exploring their magical connotations. Pure, physical functionality didn’t transfer to the masses. We didn’t use masks.
The modern surgical mask — essentially multiple layers of gauze — dates to the late 1800s. For generations, masks have been common on streets in Japan and China, worn during cold and flu season or as protection from pollution and allergens, and gaining ground during the SARS outbreak.
Street-influenced menswear incorporated face masks into its vocabulary more than a decade ago. In the spring 2002 Raf Simons collection, presented not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, models stalked the darkened runway wearing face coverings that left little but their eyes visible. The masks referred to rebellion, to defying the establishment.
The early fashion masks were a way to stand apart from a logo-driven, flashy society. They used anonymity as style statement.
Just after the presidential inauguration in 2017, menswear designers in New York incorporated face masks into their collections as part of a uniform of liberal protest of the Trump administration and its targeting of immigrants, minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. More recently, face masks have symbolized the dangers of climate change. Anti-capitalists have adopted Guy Fawkes masks and antifa activists hide behind gas masks and bandannas.
Masks, part of the greater universe of face coverings, stir up long-held stereotypes that frame the person behind the mask as dangerous or suspicious, rather than caring or considerate. We are leery of what we cannot see. The enduring image of bandits shapes that perception. But so do Islamophobia and racism.
Some black men have expressed their fear of being mistaken for an assailant if they enter a store wearing a mask, particularly a homemade one. They’d rather risk covid-19 than an unpredictable encounter with police. And Asian Americans have faced verbal and physical abuse from bigots who blame them for a virus that first appeared in Wuhan, China. “Saturday Night Live’s” mask-wearing Bowen Yang even tackled the topic of Asian profiling in the age of the coronavirus in one of the show’s last in-studio broadcasts.
“We’ve policed face coverings,” says Bucar, the religion professor, who’s the author of “Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress.” “It ‘others’ us to wear one.” But they are not likely to be discarded soon. “We’ve started thinking about how we’ll deal with these masks on campus,” Bucar says. “Will my kid use one in seventh grade? Will police officers?”
Already masks are standard attire for grocery clerks and customers, delivery folks, Uber drivers, pharmacists and baristas. The House of Representatives was gaveled in to session by mask-wearing congressmen. Waiters take orders behind them in restaurants. Masked barbers and hairstylists serve masked clients.
It’s not a leap to envision visitors strolling through museums wearing masks, music lovers attending an outdoor concert wearing them or customers browsing a clothing shop wearing masks while simultaneously shopping for new ones.
If masks become common, they can serve as a personal reminder of how one should behave in public. That’s the power of a particular form of attire. It connects us. It’s an expression of solidarity.
Fashion finds a way — without advertising, influencers or the red carpet. Tiny design houses and modestly sized brands are all producing masks that are more pleasing to the eye. Going out in one of those blue disposable masks is the stylistic — and psychological — equivalent of wearing a hospital gown in public. The new generation of masks look intentional.
“If you have to wear a mask every single day, you probably need 14 in a week. If I go out once and then I go out again, do I wear the same mask? No, ideally you wear a different one,” says designer Kiki Pedro-Hall. “Every company at the retail level is making masks — any cotton T-shirt company is making masks. You see it when you go on Instagram. Whole businesses are being launched out of masks.”
In Brookyn, Pedro-Hall had been part of an initiative making masks for hospitals. “I was feeling so sad,” she says. “Maybe I’m a control freak. This was me feeling like I’m doing something.”
She soon shifted her energies to sewing masks that she could sell — raising money for people in need, such as families who couldn’t afford funerals for their loved ones. Pedro-Hall, who has made stage costumes for hip-hop performers, has a keen sense for what is cool and what is hot. She began recycling dust covers — the protective fabric bags that come with luxury handbags and shoes — into masks.
She suspected that “all the sneakerheads would totally love this stuff.” There was built-in exclusivity, as some design houses create unique dust covers for particular products. The covers are emblazoned with the brand’s name — Gucci, Prada, Balenciaga, Chanel — and sell for $65 to $150.
Pedro-Hall delivered 25 of them online at Ki Collection in mid-April. They sold in 15 minutes. The new collection includes 40 masks, as well as matching bags to store them in. The dust cover masks have their own dust cover.
In Houston, designer Priscilla Von Sorella pulled Italian fabrics from her archive and stitched up masks from silk, velvet and metallic brocade. Are these little bits of sparkle lighting up the future? Expunging some of the fear?
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we bring a little bit of normalcy to our lives and express ourselves,’ ” Von Sorella says. “You would treat this like a high-end garment.”
Masks arrived in our lives like costuming from a terrifying science fiction film. Those sterile covers churned up fear and disgust, as well as a kind of stubborn individualism that could prove disastrous. Violence has even erupted when businesses have required them of customers.
But the scale is weighted toward mask-wearing. Neighbors deliver online tirades against those who don’t wear them. Health experts continue to advocate for masks. And even Vice President Pence admitted that his not wearing one during his April visit to the Mayo Clinic, which requires them of anyone on site, was wrong. He subsequently wore a mask when touring a General Motors ventilator factory in Indiana.
Masks are the “great equalizer,” Kim says. They’re a visual acknowledgment of a communal purpose. The most powerful accept their duty to take precautions to protect the weak. And the least among us have agency, too.
It’s no small thing that fashion has gotten hold of masks. The industry has taken liberty in smoothing their edges and heightening their flavor. We can stand in solidarity with our neighbors. But we can remain individuals, too.
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