Face Masks in Fashion
10th August 2020
Over the past few months, people everywhere have had to adopt new behaviours and adapt to new circumstances due to the spread of the coronavirus. The enforced influx of so much that is ‘new’ all at once has inspired an equally forced acceptance of the fact that our lives may not return to what we once considered as ‘normal’ for the foreseeable future. The forced acceptance of the abnormal has produced a population-wide promotion of the ‘new-normal’ lifestyle.
This cry for familiarity in a world rendered so unfamiliar by COVID-19 is acknowledged through elbow-bumping, selfies of people with their faces covered, and the sharp, clean hint of hand-sanitizer in the unlikeliest of places (read: the newsagents on the corner). A sharp, clean scent hovers over a sharper, cleaner people. Hopefully soon, a sharper, cleaner world.
These measures have touched every aspect of our lives. From our preferred shopping locations and hours to the socially acceptable number of people now allowed to congregate at the beach, it is unsurprising that the coronavirus has crept into the sleeves of the fashion industry. Where in the 2000s, we had low rise jeans, and in the 70s, we rocked flares, the iconic must-have of this decade by the time 2030 rolls around will likely be the facemask. As citizens across the globe are encouraged to cover up in public places, purchases of this variation of hygiene-fuelled haute-couture have rocketed up. Etsy revealed that searches for face masks have increased 9 times a second since April of 2020.
Fashion is notorious for reflecting the times. During the 1940s, women wore straight, fabric-conserving skirts in plain shades, and drew lines up the back of their legs to give the impression of the hard-to-come-by pantyhose. Trousers and utility-style dresses marched onto the high street as women replaced their male counterparts in the workforce, but then retreated again after World War II when the men returned and fabric became more plentiful – note the trademark 50’s skirt of Sandra Dee in Grease. Yet fashion fell unwittingly out of step with facemasks and is now rushing to catch up.
Since the 1950s, the West has shamelessly dominated global culture. ‘Globalisation’, a word with the whole world within its margins, could have been a pseudonym for ‘Americanization’ (with a z), something that reads with a vast difference. The gradual integration of global traditions and economies over time mostly comes down to the explosion of one culture in all directions. The star-spangled banners of the US and the EU, alongside the UK, have absorbed the cultural and economic limelight for years. With all the fuss in the Western corner, it seemed unnecessary to consult the Eastern, Northern, or Southern corners. For the most part, we paid little attention, unless (or until) they presented as an economic or military threat. Not the most charitable of comrades, the West has been.
In countries such as Japan, Korea and the larger cities of China, facemasks have been common use for civilians since as far back as the 1920s. Originally brought in to combat the spread of diseases such as the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century, SARS in the early 2000s, and incidentally, COVID-19 in 2020, they also serve to filter the noxious air in cities heavy under the smog of pollution. They are not so much a trend as they are a social requirement; masks are worn also out of consideration for the health and safety of fellow citizens.
“Where in the 2000s, we had low rise jeans, and in the 70s, we rocked flares, the iconic must-have of this decade by the time 2030 rolls around will likely be the facemask”
So when the question “How on earth will we integrate facemasks into our daily lives?” – or even “How can we be expected to integrate facemasks into our daily lives?” – arises as an actual issue in our media, we Westerners reveal a sad ignorance and possibly weakness in our nature. Whether we like it or not, the wearing of masks is creeping into a prime position as part of this ‘new normal’ that is replacing the actual normal of our pre-COVID lives. The fashion industry reflects the times perhaps, but in attempting to cater to our ‘new-normal-needs’ needs, it has highlighted the slow-uptake of the West to a custom that has been sitting under our noses (or rather, on top of their noses), for decades.
As a Westerner, I propose that it is time we understand globalisation in all its intended glory: a convergence of many cultures and traditions at one central, compromising point, rather than a dominance of one or a few overwhelming players pushing the others off the field. The war against the coronavirus is a non-contact sport, but it takes place in a global stadium, in which every country is playing a part. For us to succeed against the enemy hidden in the clouds, or more accurately, water vapour, it is vital that we cooperate. And to cooperate effectively, a two-way transmission of communication should take place. Us Westerners should take not one, but two of the leaves blowing from the books of non-Western states: that we should easily integrate facemasks into daily life; and that to listen and learn from those around us is not to be weak but to be aware of all the means available to us in defeating a common adversary.
If we need fashion to make this concept a more attractive (and possibly palatable) reality to us, then we will sew our way to global victory; not as one of many teams, but as one team of many. The next time we meet that question “How on earth will we integrate facemasks into our daily lives?”, we should remember that what we are really asking is “How on earth will we integrate facemasks into our Western lives?” or Southern or Northern lives for that matter; quite a few members of the far-East have it sorted, and it’s time for us to take note.
Featured photo by Vera Davidova