Face Masks: The Unexpected Fashion Accessory Of 2020.
Updated: Sep 10
How face masks shifted from a health protector into the biggest fashion trend of the 2020s.
The year face masks arrived.
2020 has been filled with unexpected twists and turns. Ever since the pandemic arrived in January, our lives have hurtled off course. We welcomed the new year with open arms, our calendars bursting with anticipated plans like holidays, live shows, or fun nights around town. Instead, we experienced a very different year. Now, most of us want 2020 to be over and done with. But even when 2021 approaches, who knows when life will ever go back to normal?
A few months into this hectic year, face masks started appearing. Initially, their arrival caught me off guard. With news outlets spreading conflicting information, I was unsure about their effectiveness. Could masks really help stop the spread of the virus? In some articles, they were described as germ collectors or breathing restrictors. Other articles I read went down a conspiratorial route, viewing these masks as a symptom of government compliance. A potential indication of an Orwellian future where our muffled mouths signified a loss of human expression. Despite this initial wave of media scepticism, the public opinion on masks gradually shifted. It’s safe to say that my opinion changed too.
Face masks were made mandatory on public transport in July. As I was still trying to find the truth within these conflicting news reports, I was wondering where the sudden change of heart came from. New information was flooding in. I saw diagrams circulating on Instagram stories. They demonstrated how masks prevented airborne particles from passing onto others in enclosed public spaces. Additionally, seeing masks on the streets is a gentle reminder that we’re still in a pandemic and need to maintain social distancing measures.
These weren't unfounded claims either. In April, the CDC finally acknowledged that face masks can stop the spread of the virus if worn by everyday people. Despite months of mixed messages, masks soon became a public priority.
Face masks were now a symbol of the times. A shield defending us all from a common enemy: the coronavirus. All of a sudden, wearing masks was commonplace and represented our acknowledgement of social responsibility. By wearing a mask, you’re not only looking out for your own health, but the health of others too. (Especially the eldery or immunocompromised among us).
Of course, the public shouldn’t just wear whatever mask they can get their hands on. Our frontline workers need critical supplies like surgical masks or N95s respirators the most. But that doesn't mean we don't have much choice either…
The rise of fashion face masks.
As face masks became commonplace, more stylish options popped up. Countless people have transformed them into a fashion statement. Look through Instagram and you’ll find influencers matching their masks with their outfits. Designs I’ve seen include fun sequined strawberries (that go with the viral Lirika Matoshi dress), Y2K rhinestones, carefree paisley prints, and so much more. We’ve also seen people make the most out of lockdown and create their own masks from leftover fabric!
I must admit, seeing the shift from medical masks to fashion statements made me feel a little uneasy at first. Above all, the virus has brought us so much pain. However, I also saw it as a great way to encourage people to keep wearing their masks.
But why this latest obsession with fashionable options? Well, I’m convinced it’s another way for us to cope with a dire situation; much like how we were making silly dance TikToks or baking loaf after loaf of banana bread in lockdown. Essentially, wearing a ‘fun’ or ‘pretty’ mask is a way to make our current reality more palatable. Like it or not, face masks are here for the long haul. Surely wearing a stylish mask won’t hurt. (But please don’t walk around your local shopping centre wearing a netted, diamante mask. Style mustn't overtake reason).
Face Masks in East Asia.
Although the western world took time to adapt to face mask measures, some areas of East Asia have been wearing them for decades. For countries like China, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, wearing masks is a normality. Walk through any major city and you're bound to spot commuters with surgical masks on.
Take Japan for instance. Over there, face mask usage goes back to the 1950s and it was all thanks to industrialisation. People were encouraged to wear masks so they could protect themselves against Tokyo’s rising pollution levels. Additionally, sick people will put on a mask as a sign of politeness. It's a reflection of their cultural norms. Of the strong desire to not inconvenience the people around you by spreading your germs. If you need to sneeze in public, you’d better have a mask on.
What’s more, the threat of fatal viruses is closer to home in those countries. The 2002 SARS outbreak was a huge public health threat. Beginning in China, the virus infected around 8,000 people and spread to neighbouring countries like Taiwan and Singapore. Even though they eventually contained the disease, the damage was done. Almost 800 people died. Undoubtedly, this was a turning point for the region.
Is it okay for brands to start selling stylish face masks?
Since face masks were now in demand worldwide, big and small fashion brands rose to the challenge and designed and manufactured their own. After all, these businesses have the fabric resources to make them. Yet this has led to one major problem. By selling fashionable face masks, brands are teetering the line between two different public reactions. They’ll either be criticized for profiting from the virus, or praised for providing the general public with protective masks. No brand wants to be remembered as the money-hungry leeches who cashed in on a global pandemic.
Boohoo, the popular fast fashion brand, were slammed for this very reason. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers called them out for selling £5 face masks. They viewed it as a shameless ‘cash in on the crisis,’ especially while the NHS were struggling with PPE shortages.
However, this issue isn’t one-note. Some brands are relying on face masks to make up for business losses. As I mentioned in a previous article, various fashion companies went bust this year, causing thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Generally, consumers bought less clothing during lockdown which led to poor sales. For these businesses, selling face masks is a sound way to keep themselves afloat during the crisis. It’s a tricky situation indeed.
You see, some smaller businesses have also sold face masks to survive. According to the Guardian, face mask sales on Etsy throughout June, July, and August totaled to £264 million. Unsurprisingly, this proves that masks are big business and a valuable source of income during economically-tough times.
I’ve found various small brands selling face masks online, and most of them are mindful about how they source their materials and who the mask profits will go-to. Lavender Hill Clothing sells biodegradable masks with carefully sourced fabric, so as to not take any valuable material away from the NHS; while Isabel Manns is donating the profits made from their adjustable face masks to our healthcare system.
Big fashion brands & their reaction.
Even big fashion brands have made and distributed masks for charitable reasons (so there’s no need to go down a cynical route just yet!) If companies want to sell face coverings and not look like they’re profiting off the pandemic, then donating supplies or money is an ideal middle ground. Big UK names like Mulberry and Rixo collaborated with the British Fashion Council, designing face masks to raise money for three different charities: Wings of Hope Children’s Charity, NHS Charities Together Covid-19 Urgent Appeal, and the BFC Foundation Fashion Fund.
Christopher Kane also helped out. In early April, the fashion house revealed a campaign that called for people to create their own face masks at home. All you had to do was email the brand and receive a free-craft pack. It contained instructions on how to make homemade masks from the materials you already own. Wearing your own face coverings is a far better alternative to hoarding valuable PPE that the NHS so desperately needs.
By creating reusable masks, fashion brands can also combat another key problem: sustainability. So much news has surfaced explaining why single-use face masks are bad for the environment. Plastic masks are dangerous for wildlife as birds or marine life can get tangled in the straps. And with more masks than jellyfish in the sea, they’re a new source of pollution. So what can fashion brands do about it?
Well, they can bring more eco-friendly options onto the market. The more affordable and high-quality choices there are, the less likely we’re going to buy disposable options (and it’s also a great way to make use of any surplus materials!) But, if wearing a surgical mask is your only option, remember to cut-off the straps before you throw them away.
BONUS: The Good Trade has a great list of brands that are selling effective, cloth face masks. Go and check it out if you need some sustainable options.
Based upon everything we’ve just looked at, fashion face masks are not losing momentum - and won’t do anytime soon. As they are mandatory on public transport and in shops and supermarkets, I don’t see why we can’t enjoy a few fashionable designs. But of course, the situation is dire. We’ve lost so many lives and plans have been destroyed, so it’s important not to trivialize the matter at hand.
Fashionable face masks won’t solve much. However, they bring us comfort, safety, and a little bit of fun despite these trying times. Keep wearing them. Keep protecting yourself and others. Here’s to the 2020s' most unexpected fashion accessory.
Thank you for reading my latest post.
I hoped you learnt something new about face masks and the fashion industry!
Do you have a favourite mask? Tell me about it in the comments.
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