Since the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans cover their nose and mouth with a face mask, the tenor of the programmatic ads that follow me around the internet has changed. Interspersed between lounge pants and fitness apps are ads from companies that have pivoted to producing cloth face masks. The masks are not explicitly marketed as protection, nor are they explicitly marketed as fashion, just as another accessory to add to the pile. Over the weekend, I saw cloth masks in bright, colorful patterns from companies like Live Love Gameday, which normally sells shirts marketed to women who love sports. “We got you covered,” the copy reads. When I clicked through, intrigued by the idea of a mask that was actually “cute,” I was briefly saddened to discover that the leopard-print one I yearned for was already sold out.
Realistically, the face masks we are now asked to wear function as protection—protecting both the wearer and those she encounters. But now, face masks are a trend. Fashionable ones, designed for trend-conscious non-essential workers browsing the internet from the comfort of their homes, will inevitably become status symbols.
The directive to wear a face mask is not about protecting yourself but protecting others. At Refinery29, Connie Wang wrote eloquently about protecting the collective, placing the need to wear a mask in some much-needed context. In many parts of Asia, including China, where Wang’s family is from, wearing a face mask to go about the day’s activities is a matter of course. “I tell my American friends that I wear them because of the pollution, or that I can’t afford to get sick during business trips and marathon family reunions,” Wang writes. “But the truth is that I wear face masks because it’s just the thing to do.”
Strapping on a face mask and wearing one to run errands outside of a global pandemic is socially acceptable on the streets of Taipei, where my mother’s family is from. Last April, my mother spent a week in the ICU in Taipei after receiving emergency brain surgery; when my siblings and I arrived to visit her, we were greeted at the hospital by one of my many aunts, who thrust a pack of surgical masks in our general direction and told us to put them on. We weren’t allowed to enter the ICU unless we were wearing them, and we also had to cover our street clothes with a hospital-issued surgical gown that was discarded immediately after to be laundered. Though we never asked my aunt outright why we had to wear the masks, the reason was clear: it was for the health and welfare of others around us.
As I looked around at the various masks that I saw on that visit to Taipei, though, none of them stood out as particularly fashionable or remarkable. An all-black pack of disposable masks that I purchased at a FamilyMart, a convenience store near our hotel, felt chic once I put it on, but I didn’t buy those masks because they were chic—I bought them and wore them because without them, I would not be allowed to go into the ICU and spoon-feed my mother bits of pumpkin stew for the duration of our 15-minute visit. The various night markets I visited had face masks for sale, and stupidly, I browsed idly for luxury brand knock-off versions to take back to the United States with me as a souvenir more than anything else. Nowhere did I see anyone coordinating their face masks with their outfits. If someone was wearing a mask, then they were simply wearing a mask, doing their part to be a good citizen to those around them.
Framing the mask itself as a “fashion statement,” as Vanessa Friedman did in a recent New York Times column, prods at the notion that as cloth masks become a part of everyday life, they will transform into fashion accessories and not mutually protective necessities. “When masks migrate into the realm of fashion, however, they become something else,” she writes. “As with all accessories (as with shoes, bags and scarves), they become symbols of not just health or social concern, but of identity.” The “identity” in question is really just class; a disposable surgical mask worn more than three days in a row is a little bit different than designer Eugenia Kim’s $20 satin offering. Hypebeasts with deep archives are particularly well-prepared for this moment, too. A BAPE face mask purchased for fashion’s sake is now both: a necessity and a fashion statement in one, the most succinct way to telegraph an affinity for streetwear as well as the disposable income required to do so.
Looking at cloth face masks and other homespun iterations of the PPE so many essential workers need to do their jobs as “fashion” feels like denial—a staunch refusal to grapple with our current grim reality. Hospital workers are quitting over a lack of protective gear needed to adequately and safely do their jobs, but many lucky enough to be able to do their non-essential work from home are weighing their fashionable options. It is much easier to endure an internal debate about a gingham face mask from Etsy when you don’t have to worry about the virus at work. Over the past couple of weeks, publications like Vogue, Elle, GQ, and New York’s The Strategist have published SEO-friendly, shoppable lists of where to buy “stylish” face masks. “Masks are not a fashion accessory, but they do take up a fair amount of real estate on your face,” writes Vogue. “And so it’s not surprising that people are looking for aesthetically pleasing ones.” The mask that kicks off Vogue’s list is a $40 Liberty cloth offering from lingerie and loungewear line Araks. Elle’s list includes indie fashion label Collina Strada’s take on PPE: a $100 face mask with “maximalist” bows on either side, made of deadstock fabric from past seasons, with the caveat that for each mask purchased, five will be donated to New York City’s healthcare workers who are in desperate need.
Of course, fashion designers and clothing companies started making masks in the first place because they have to make money somehow. In the Times, Friedman grapples with this sticky dilemma, suggesting that the new glut of masks, both cute and functional, is part of a larger, savvier cash grab in response to the global health crisis. To be clear, the masks are necessary for everyone, not just the essential workers who are the ones going to work, but it feels like now, “cute” masks are everywhere—readily available for non-essential workers who are all staying home to wear on their weekly grocery shopping trips, while the many so-called essential workers are covering their faces with bandanas, t-shirts, and whatever else they can find.
The divide is clear: for the target audience of the listicles in New York, Vogue, and The New York Times, face masks are truly just about fashion, because their daily protection is already secured. For non-essential workers who are capable of doing their jobs from the comfort of their own homes, the question of what kind of mask—striped or checked, leopard or zebra, Christian Siriano or Reformation—is not about how well it will do its job, but how it will look. For the privileged, a face mask is an expression of individual identity, essentially rendering its primary function meaningless.
Not wearing a mask, as Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and much of the current administration have chosen to do, is also about expressing identity. Trump’s eagerness to return the economy to “normal” well ahead of the CDC’s guidelines has encouraged his most ardent followers to gather in protest against the stay-at-home policies enacted by various states. The choice to not wear a mask in public, then, is a clear signifier of identity, too.