“I always think that transition of necessity into fashionability is really interesting,” says British designer Patrick McDowell. “We saw it with the trench coat from World War I which is now a staple in most people’s wardrobes, but at the time was cutting-edge, military innovation.”
He’s talking about 2020’s trench: the face mask, something of a surprise new entry on the accessory front this year. It’s one he’s been helping to promote via a "DIY Mask Making" tutorial, the aim of which when it launched back in March was to show how to make your own quickly and easily from household items: a bed sheet, kitchen towel, a needle and thread.
“Actually, when I sent it [the link] to you recently, I did think ‘Gosh, it’s so boring’ - just a white sheet mask because now I wear a blue silk one which I made, then I have a pink one,” he shares. “Like anything in fashion, if you like what you’re wearing, you feel better don’t you.”
Which is why nearly three months after we officially had to start wearing face coverings on public transport and almost two since they became mandatory in shops, homemade or shop-bought, the choice is endless.
From Off-White and Burberry to 3.1 Phillip Lim, The Vampire’s Wife, Mulberry, Staud, Tory Burch and Erdem; there’s 903,509 search results on Etsy for them; you can buy a pack of five from the Co-Op or commission a $1.5m diamond one complete with 3,600 black and white diamonds – as one businessman did.
“As face masks have evolved into our new normal, we received an overwhelming amount of messages requesting if we could create them for our followers – and not just brides,” says Hermione de Paula, whose bridal business subsequently has begun to make “mask kits” featuring for example a matching bow, bag, fan, gloves and scarf; as well as make one-of-a-kind embroidered masks for her brides. Such is the demand she can hardly keep up.
“I was apprehensive at first to jump on some distasteful ‘fashion bandwagon’ created by a world crisis and devastation. However, as the wedding industry has been allowed to open up and our brides have been given some hope to celebrate with their loved ones, it was really important to help our clients find a solution,” she says. “I wanted to help them co-ordinate their mask to their gown so it could still be an extension of their personality.”
It’s in these two contrasting trains of thought that the history of the mask can be found, associated as it is with a sense of fear and biology, as well as social identity.
“There’s various histories of the mask,” says Caroline Stevenson, Head of Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion, referring first to an incarnation that was born of the plague. Community doctors, who were not necessarily trained doctors but brought in to deal with bodies, would wear beak-like masks filled with herbs to ward off the putrid smell. Dressed also in a wax cape and armed with a stick (to prod the bodies), they were a sinister sight indeed. “Really, people started wearing them in a medical context before they knew about the science of germs and how they spread. It was understood that the plague spread from person to person through human contact but people thought it was circulating through society by demons and devils,” says Stevenson. Arresting and frankly scary, masks therefore became connected to a sense of spirituality, as well as protection.
But circa 1162, masks had played a significant role in Venice and its Carnival celebrations, this time related to pleasure (masks were often crafted from glass, leather and feathers), anonymity and navigating rigid social structures in which wearers, rich and poor, could now invent themselves anew. “It brought unlikely people together and it also permitted eccentric behaviours or behaviours that wouldn’t be allowed in normal society,” says Stevenson. The upshot being that masks – enabling disobedience and disruption - were outlawed in Venice by the Catholic Church for a number of years. During the Renaissance, however, masks started to be worn again on an everyday basis, this time not elaborate, she says - perhaps more akin then to the throwaway surgical ones we have likely found ourselves wearing lately.
More recently during the Spanish flu of 1918, reports from private journals and diaries noted that wearers actually became quite creative with their mask-wearing - in much the same way as the many thousands of makers and sellers of Etsy have done (sales have reportedly reached $346m). And the face mask has been common place in Asia for some time, owing to pollution. Off the catwalk, you’ll regularly clock the street style stars of Seoul Fashion Week wearing them with their Insta-garb, while on the catwalk, they pertinently cropped up at Marine Serre this past February when they still felt like a runway-only, avant-garde idea. Yet the breakout country singer Orville Peck has made a Wild West fringe style his trademark pre-pandemic for some time now.
“Accessories tell you a lot about what is going on in society at the time,” says Elizabeth Way, Assistant Curator, The Museum at FIT, who in a rather crystal ball moment began working on an exhibition with Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research, two years ago called Head To Toe, about the history of women’s accessories, in which masks will now be a feature. “If you think about wearing masks they conceal very expressive parts of our face so on the one hand you have people wearing masks as a form of consideration and protection, but on the other they’re a symbol of solidarity. When you add this fashion layer to it, it’s also an outlet to share individuality,” says Marra-Alvarez.
But as Way points out: “In many ways they’re much more visible than other accessories on the face and we’re still at a point where we notice them. They definitely haven’t blended into the fashion or social landscape, they’re really noticeable.”
Some designers are trying to combat the idea of the mask as a signal of danger or of poor safety. The US designer Raquel Allegra featured them in a recent lookbook - as did Versace – despite initially being put off by face coverings. “I did feel a strange kind of judgement. A feeling I’m not comfortable with at all. The judgement resembled something like ‘danger/keep away/not safe’. Surely this has roots in my instinct to survive. I now feel the complete opposite. I feel suspicion and a lack of safety when I’m around anyone not wearing a mask, they are a symbol of taking responsibility.”
South Korean designer Jackie Lee, of J JS Lee, is inclined to agree. It was obvious to her to begin making masks for friends and family and supermarket workers in her immediate area back in March, but she was also met with hostility. “Are you sick?” she says is what people immediately thought when she wore one, and would receive strange glances - and even hate email suggesting she was stoking fear.
“It’s a culture thing,” she says. When celebrities wear them, they look cool (and probably enjoy the anonymity), but bandanas have a relationship with bandits and bank robbers. “When you cover your face, it’s like you want to hide something,” she says. Notably, with today’s face masks that cover mouths and noses, it’s only the eyes left on display – and in the western world we’re not exactly great on eye contact, just think back to your old commute. Even our emojis – happy, sad, stumped, lols - convey reactions by the mouth. “Asian emojis are all in the eyes,” points out Lee of the difference.
Not only is it about how we feel about wearing them, it’s what we use them to signal. “Masks are like the new T-shirts in that way,” says Elizabeth Way of their political potential – some celebrities, like Shia LaBeouf, have used them to show who they’ll be voting for in the upcoming presidential election. Stevenson compares them to the ubiquitous promotional tote bag.
The question is then: will we be stocking up on them in quite the same way? Perhaps this is one for the history books to decide.
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