“I transferred to another shuttle that headed north to Times Square. There would be a half-dozen commuters on each shuttle, wearing a variety of fashion masks, in all black or leopard print or emblazoned with the Supreme logo. The masks seemed to preclude any conversation.” That quote comes not from a COVID-era narrative thinkpiece, but from Ling Ma’s eerily prescient 2018 novel, “Severance.” Among Ma’s many prophetic turns includes the so-called “fashion mask,” a protective fashion accessory designed to class up the act of sanitary respiration.
In stranger-than-fiction 2020, protective masks are ubiquitous, and the fashion mask has become reality. In May, Vogue published a hundred-item list entitled “Masks to Shop Now,” including J. Crew’s yachty set of three (which sparked Twitter ire; $18), Narces’ “gold lace organza mask” ($30), and Collina Strada’s pricey “fashion face mask” ($100). Even Kim Kardashian got in, adding five colors of face masks to her Skims line.
Many bristle at the collision of capitalism and medical necessity, arguing that the profit motive has no place in a crisis. Others have pled “free market”: If people want to feel better about how they look, that’s their right. “The idea of creating [a fashion mask] to sell to people doesn’t sit super-well with me,” says Jasper Drummond, lecturer in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s fashion department. Particularly disturbing, Drummond says, are masks that “put style way over function (leather masks!!).”
A group of Vogue editors debated the ethics of fashion-masking, concluding that masks should be treated like any other fashion purchase: “Something we want to wear, made by a company we want to support,” in the words of senior fashion news writer Emily Farra. Grace Wells, a fashion production assistant working with Chicago’s Jeune Otte, drew attention to the brand’s mask-for-mask donation program. “We have donated almost 2,000 cloth masks, funding them by selling fashion masks for $15. As a freelance worker and artist, the ability to contribute to the protection of my community while still being able to pay my bills is really important.”
The mask isn’t the first protective garment to want for style. Sunglasses, jackets, hats—indeed, you could argue clothing, which shields us from the elements and from embarrassment—all have protectiveness at their core, and have assumed fashion principles secondarily. What distinguishes these designs are morbid connotations. In addition to showing up in dystopian tales like Ling Ma’s, we know the dire circumstances which gave rise to masks: countries brought to a halt, millions laid low. By comparison, sunglasses, jackets, and hats carry no reminders of tragedy, so making them stylish feels less irreverent.
Whether the mask enters into the realm of fashion depends upon whether it becomes as essential as shirts and shoes. As long as it feels like crisis wear, it will be a fraught mode of self-expression. But if it becomes an integral element of human decency, it will raise no more controversy than other top-of-the-line accessories. For now, the DIY mask (here’s a comprehensive tutorial on how to make them) may prove ethically preferable to the for-profit designer mask. “There is a huge impact being made on a much smaller human scale which feels really positive,” Drummond says. “A lot of my colleagues and I have been sewing away during the shelter-in-place order, creating hundreds, if not thousands, of masks to be donated.”