A little over six months ago, face masks were something seen pre-dominantly in surgical wards, yet this modest garment has now become a staple accessory that few leave the house without. Through out the past few months, face masks have evolved from an essential health precaution into a symbol of style and fashion. Responses to this are arguably mixed, ranging from the anti-maskers to those who have a different mask for each day of the week. It is obvious, however, that the type of mask people choose to wear is becoming increasingly important.
In the world of fashion, face coverings have become a fun way of experimenting with appearance and exploring individuality. The variety of colours and patterns available has created great diversity in how we all look, and many take great pride in this. More broadly, masks have also been used in a political context, as seen at the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Mask-wearing has become a statement, in which even the lack of a mask can have political and personal meaning.
Designers have eagerly jumped onto this concept, with a recent article in The Guardian drawing attention to the existence of a Louis Vuitton face visor. Marketed as a luxury accessory, this visor is a far cry from the PPE supplied to NHS workers at the height of the pandemic. While this is a somewhat creative approach, some may argue that it detracts from the fundamental health function of the equipment. Lana Del Rey’s recent sporting of a mesh face mask at a Los Angeles book signing is a perfect example of this, as mesh renders a mask useless. Experimenting with different colours and patterns is one thing, but the ability of masks to keep particles in and out is the most important factor.
Whilst standard disposable face masks can be bought in bulk online, this is not always cost effective. At the height of the pandemic, back in March and April, many sites hiked up the prices of masks to correspond with the increase in demand and, possibly, to financially capitalise on a time of global crisis. Ethically, such masks are not ideal as they rely on single use wear, meaning they are harmful to the environment. Alternatively, the rise of handmade masks on sites such as Etsy has caused a boom in local businesses, typically with a home set up. These face coverings are usually quite stylish and appear to be a popular choice. With regards to sustainability, fabric masks are typically multi-wear, hence more environmentally friendly. However, this luxury does come at a price, which excludes certain demographics who cannot afford to invest in masks. For many, it is the convenience of single use masks that is favoured over costly reusable ones which require rewashing.
Although mask-wearing was eventually made compulsory in shops and other indoor spaces in the UK, the government has made little effort to provide the general public with sufficient PPE. Whilst it is understandable that a significant cost is associated with such a measure, low-income families may struggle to purchase face masks.
There is a sense of elitism within the assumption that face masks can easily be accessed by all members of society. This issue extends to the question of fashion, as the appearance and quality of a mask can be a visual reminder of wealth disparities. For some, the prospect of wearing something on their face that so obviously reveals economic background is incredibly daunting.
It is undeniable that the variety of different masks on offer has hugely increased recently. Although this has allowed for a new form of self-expression, the quality and appearance of masks can serve to further divisions within society. At the end of the day, the protective ability is the most important factor in choosing a mask; while the importance of fashion and self-expression is undeniable, it is frequently elitist and exclusionary.
Illustration by Anna Kuptsova.