What Face Masks Mean Today

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Just three months ago, New York Fashion Week was in full swing, kicking off the bi-annual series of runway shows and presentations that take place across the four major fashion capitals. As editors, models, and other industry figures then flocked to London, Milan, and Paris, fashion month was abuzz with crowds milling around show venues and people sitting shoulder to shoulder to watch the runway. At the time, the coronavirus pandemic was just beginning to gain traction in Europe–nobody knew that it would be shutting down much of the industry and the world at large just two weeks after the final walk of Paris Fashion Week. It was soon apparent, however, that one of the key trends of the Fall/Winter 2020 collections would become a symbol of the times.

Face masks appeared on numerous runways throughout this past fashion month. Far from the personal protective equipment of frontline workers, designers presented adorned face coverings that added a sense of theatricality to the fashion. From air purifying ones at Marine Serre to a sparkling web at Christian Cowan to a kinky, latex gimp style at Richard Quinn, the masks were dramatic and sexy.

In Western culture, decorative face masks have largely been reserved for masquerades, bank robbers, and The Phantom of the Opera. They’ve been the finishing piece to a costume, with the purpose to conceal, rather than a piece of protective gear. Likewise in fashion, masks have cropped up throughout the years as an unexpected, often subversive, accessory on the runway. For some designers–like Alexander McQueen and Martin Margiela’s own reigns at their respective fashion houses–face coverings became a part of the spectacle of their fashion shows. Margiela himself was famously private, and many of his collections mirrored his anonymity by covering the faces of the models, too. Face masks became part of the DNA of his fashion house for many years, ranging from simple matte stockings to Haute Couture crystalized face shields.

From statement accessory to warning signal, the pandemic gave new meaning to face masks. Now, at least in the U.S., their presence evokes a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty, the potential for contamination. In East Asian countries, however, where wearing face masks was common in public spaces even before COVID-19, wearing a face mask represents a civic duty to protect others. While Western cultures come to accept this, it’s becoming clearer that masks also have the power to unify–we’re all facing this together. Many designers have jumped into action to join the fight, manufacturing masks for essential workers, providing free DIY mask instructions, and simply raising money for coronavirus relief efforts.

A necessary accessory in the new normal, face masks are now in nearly everyone’s daily wardrobes. While most are settling for simple cloth coverings, the face-concealing pieces also offer a site for personal expression. With countless designs being made, people can opt for a branded mask, support their sports team, or rep their favorite musician. As people get used to incorporating masks into their everyday looks, perhaps they will also begin experimenting with the styles and emulate the more dramatic iterations seen on the runways. Next season, designers are sure to serve up luxe masks in their collections, too, as fashion often reflects the world around it.

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