Overshadowed by her own sweep of the Grammys, Billie Eilish walked the red carpet this past January with the lower third of her face hidden. Her slime-green, oversized Gucci pajama set was completed by a sheer patterned mask, giving her the ultimate 'bad guy' look. With a nod to the surgical face masks that have been increasingly used to combat contagious disease in Asia and Europe, air pollution in Australia, and facial recognition in Hong Kong, Eilish alternatively donned the mask as a marker of high fashion.
By no means is Eilish the first to uncouple the mask’s aesthetic from its practical usage. At Paris Fashion Week last September, Cardi B turned heads with her ski-styled face mask made of opal cut black glass set in silver, exposing only her eyes. The mask took the company CoutureMask 36 hours to make. CoutureMask's customized masks cost anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 and have been worn by Rihanna, Future, and French Montana. Virgil Abloh’s streetwear label Off-White also offered $135 face masks with graphic prints as part of a limited collection, which sold out in days. Designer Marine Serre often highlights doomsday themes in her pieces: several 'apocalypse chic' couture masks are featured in her 2020 collection, which specifically addresses notions of survival in a looming violent future. Much of the collection is constructed from vintage fabrics to evoke an imagined world where resources are limited—the body is protected in layers of militaristic wrapping, while jewelry, fur, and feather embellishment persist. Here, the mask becomes euphemism for the myriad environmental conditions that are today’s crisis and tomorrow’s imagined realities.
Even within traditions that have long-practiced face-covering, the mask on the red carpet seems to signal that survival is as chic as (if not more than) exposure. MaisonArtC, a Moroccan fashion collective, has long used face coverings to obscure and androgenize their models’ faces. But the company’s face coverings have recently manifested in new frequencies with blatant nods to the surgical mask, as beaded gowns are paired with equally elaborate muzzles. In a recent Instagram post by the collective, a mask blooming with silk and beaded flowers reads: “WE WILL BE GOOD.”—a statement that may refer to both the air-purifying qualities of nature and the precaution of the mask which so much hope is placed upon.
Luxury face masks are increasing in popularity all across the fashion world, from brands like A Bathing APE to Louis Vuitton to Heron Preston. But designers not only exploit the face mask as aesthetically appealing—it is symbolism that is at the crux of their mission. In fashion and streetwear, scarcity often goes hand in hand with hype. Supreme is one company that has harnessed this tactic: its reputation is built on maintaining product scarcity, channeling collaborations with other brands or designers and limited releases of odd accessories. Now, mask-shopping takes on a dystopian role, as communities across the world scramble for a once-39-cent piece of paper while the elite don masks of finer materials ranging from linen to mesh to jewels, constitutive of streetwear and high fashion culture. Luxury branding and design juxtaposes against the mask’s utility and function as a political flash point: though current media is dominated by surgical mask shortages in the wake of coronavirus, such masks have long been worn in Hong Kong by political protesters hiding their identities, as well as in Australia to help citizens breathe in poor air quality after fires.
While celebrities have been known to flaunt their clout with clothes signaling abundance and a life of leisure, these masks may now mark an embrace of the treacherous, a fetishization of imminent threats. In the face of fascism, air pollution, and an epidemic, the mask carries with it a sobering message: the world is in danger. Through the casual gesture of donning a mask, its typical wearer evokes something potentially sinister. But for the elite wealthy, a bejeweled mask points to an ignorant fascination with peril, the privilege of display without exposure to the danger itself.
Though the fashion world has only recently adopted the mask as a trend, surgical masks have long been used in hospitals and by factory workers. The general public first began using them in East Asia during the 1918 rise of the Spanish influenza pandemic, which eventually killed 23 million people in Japan and 50 million people worldwide. These early commercial face masks were made of cloth stretched over metal frames tied to the face. Sales surged once again during another flu outbreak in 1938, creating a precedent for wearing face masks during any outbreak. The most recent spike in mask sales occurred during the 2002 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, which caused 774 deaths worldwide. The softer frameless masks used today, whose precursors entered the market in 1948, are made of woven cloth. These masks are designed to protect the outside world from the mouth-borne germs of the wearer, whether that be surgeon or sick person, not the other way around. They serve as barrier protection against large droplets, but do not effectively filter small particles from the air or prevent leakage around the edge of the mask. The reality is that the typically white or blue surgical mask, used in a multitude of contexts today, provides its wearer with little protection from environmental viruses.
The typical mask wearers of the 20th century were the mildly sick, who hoped to avoid passing on illness to others on the morning train. But the mask became a normalized part of everyday attire following the swine flu outbreak in 2009, when it was expected that everyone would wear a mask. A mask subculture has now become widely accepted throughout Japan, where people even wear masks purely for the aesthetic, known as “date masuku,” (“date” means “just for show”). In 2011, a Japanese news site that surveyed people in Shibuya, Tokyo reported that 30 percent of mask-wearers wore them for reasons unrelated to sickness. Many use it to accentuate certain features deemed attractive: emphasize the eyes, make the face look smaller, hide poor skin, or lend an air of “mystery,” as one surveyed high school girl said. The mask can also allow its wearer to move through public space without having to bother putting on makeup. Others point to its psychological effects, as it creates a social firewall between self and society that allows for better focus in school or work, hiding emotions, or avoiding gender-based harassment on trains. Regardless of whether the mask is used for beauty or psychology, all of these utilizations hinge upon its original purpose of serving as a physical barrier. And as with any trend, companies have found ways to create and market masks that extend beyond the functional and into the fashionable: boutique stores in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood offer a wide range of options beyond the typical white or blue masks, from zebra-print, to anime designs, to K-pop inspired masks, to black leather ones with studs on them.
Most recently, Instagram influencers have used the mask to turn the outbreak into an opportunity to post photoshoots under the guise of raising awareness. While the intention behind most of these influencers is to supposedly encourage their followers to adopt good hygiene habits and support those affected by the coronavirus, the self-promoting nature of modeling a mask diminishes their altruism. Co-opting the aesthetics of crisis, models caption their seductive poses in masks with the hashtag #coronavirus. Instagrammer Jada Hai Phong Nguyen accompanied her black mask with tight checkered black-and-white pants and a crop top, as well as a caption with advice on how to avoid the virus, including mask recommendations. The Vietnam-based model has said that she decided to share the photo because of how many people, including her family, remained uninformed about the seriousness of the outbreak. But many criticize her for posing as humanitarian and exploiting a virus for a photoshoot, pointing specifically to her nonchalant body language, three-image carousel, and a pose alongside her pooch. Russian influencer Steven Divish didn’t even bother to put up a charitable facade—he posted a photo of himself decked head-to-toe in designer gear and a black face mask, simply captioned: “Vibe check.” Though some influencer fans greeted the new look with great appetite, many have accused him of lacking sensitivity. Dismayed by the number of influencers taking the opportunity during an outbreak to model face masks in sensual or carefree poses, one Twitter user noted: “Everything is a fad to these people—they're not human.”
On Instagram, accessorizing a cute outfit with a mask and modeling it as sexy means incorporating this tool as part of a curated (and strategic) image, which then becomes trendy. The conflation of the chic and the practical raises questions about the allure of catastrophe, and whether such trends arise as a way to normalize, cope with, or even fetishize an apocalyptic aura. Indeed, the fashion world elite are harnessing the symbolic power of the mask without addressing its systemic realities or even contextualizing the semiotics of the mask they hide behind.
Face masks have been worn by political protesters in Hong Kong since June of last year. During anti-government protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill, they concealed identities from police and CCTV, which was ubiquitously used throughout the country. The masks, amongst umbrellas, balaclavas, and helmets, protected its wearers from punishments of up to 10 years in prison. The government attempted to ban protesters from wearing them and ordered retailers to take measures to prevent their sale. E-commerce giant Taobao restricted the sales of many of these identity-hiding items— searches for them would be met only with “item not found.”
In Australia, masks continue to help people breathe in some of the worst air quality in the world. The bushfires across the country have already destroyed at least 24 million acres of land, killed at least 28 people and one billion animals, and demolished 2,000 homes. Although recent cooler conditions have brought some respite, the regions of New South Wales and Victoria still continue to have around 50 fires burning. The smoke is so pervasive that the air quality is considered to be as bad as if one were to smoke 19 cigarettes a day, threatening to cause respiratory problems and exacerbate existing chronic conditions. In such situations where masks serve as critical respirator protection, surgical masks are insufficient: N95 masks, designed to provide a very close facial fit, are worn to filter airborne particles and protect the wearer from pollen, pollution, and ash.
In 2015, after Beijing effectively shut down the city during its first-ever smog “red alert” (the most urgent form of alert), sales of face masks increased until most outlets were completely out of stock. The years that followed also saw intense and highly illegal forest fires sweeping across Indonesia, resulting in more masks worn on the streets of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. As the Taal volcano erupted in the southern Philippines this past January, N95 masks were marketed as a preventative measure against sulfur-laden ash and were cleaned out in stores in less than a day.
With the coronavirus outbreak, the scramble for face masks has revealed many truths about the lack of outbreak preparedness. Many basic medical products rely on international trade, which can be placed into jeopardy during emergencies as imports and exports are cut off by border shutdowns and rising local demand. Epidemics disrupt global supply chains, which make it even more difficult to distribute masks. Maxi-pads, half an orange, parts from a water bottle: the demand and dearth has left many scrambling for creative substitutes with questionable effectiveness. A thin, three-ply pleated expandable layer of rectangle gauze that normally sells for 39 cents has become a precious commodity.
Indeed, the face mask embodies a precarious future: one of constant surveillance, an unprotected climate, and herd panic around disease. But in its multiplicity of representations, it also holds a certain degree of ambiguity that sets up a power dynamic between wearer and viewer. As they observe a mass mania toward the mask, the unmasked are compelled to ask: Why is a mask necessary? What should I be preparing for? Do I need a mask, too?
Though there have been no official suggestions made for those living in the United States to wear face masks, many have begun doing so anyways, depleting global stock that is more highly needed in other countries such as China or Italy. Left in a state of general anxiety due to a lack of clear and accurate information around the coronavirus, many buy masks out of mob mentality rather than founded reason. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend that people who feel well wear a facemask—only those who are showing symptoms of coronavirus or taking care of someone infected. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams even warned that wearing a mask if not a healthcare provider can increase risk of coronavirus, since those who do not know how to wear them properly end up touching their face more than usual. But in moments of fear, every chance of protection feels critical to people who think they have few other actions to take. Panicked people seek control: some are doing anything they can to combat a lack of self-efficacy rather than address systemic causes, even at the cost of others living in areas of higher risk.
The popular California-based company Vogmask, which offers a plethora of styles from cheetah to organic, markets its products as “a tool for wellness, style, and a symbol of care for yourself, the planet, and the future.” In the face of an apocalyptic world, companies have begun playing with language familiar around self-care marketing to appeal to the fear of threats that, for many of its wearers, are not relevant. For this technology—intended to curb the spread of disease, filter out pollution, conceal identity—to have been adopted as “wellness” and by elites as a symbol of cutting-edge style marks a cultural shift. Disaster has become noticeably ubiquitous, and self-preservation may be one form of coping with it, whether that may stem out of necessity, fear, or beauty and style. In a future where things are uncertain, so may be our smiles—hidden behind a protective gauze shielding us from an increasingly hostile planet.
MIA PATTILLO B’20 and NICK ROBLEE-STRAUSS B’22 prefer to spend their money on beautifully scented, luxury hand soaps.