As the country moves toward reopening, masks are assuredly part of our future. And in some ways, their evolution is the perfect encapsulation of how much life has changed in a blink of an eye — and how challenging, both intellectually and emotionally, it will be for us to go forward.
“The question about face masks is how will they morally change us? To some extent the answer depends on our motivation for wearing them,” says Liz Bucar, a professor of religion at Northeastern University. “If you are wearing a mask to protect yourself from others, you are forming a habit of fear. Every time you put a mask on, every time you see someone else wearing one, you will reinforce this fear.
“But if you are wearing the mask to protect others, wearing it will create a feeling of connection to those in your community,” she says. “You’ll see others wearing masks as a sartorial sign that they are willing to sacrifice some freedom and comfort for the common good.”
“The meaning we give to these masks matters.”
In the beginning, which is to say in March, our experts said that healthy civilians didn’t need to wear face masks. A nonmedical mask was superfluous because it could not protect the wearer from the microscopic droplets on which the virus traveled. The only purpose was to prevent the wearer from coughing and sneezing the infection on others — and if one was displaying those sorts of symptoms, you really shouldn’t be out in the world.
In Paris, crowded international fashion shows were still unfurling as scheduled. A few design houses offered guests disposable masks — presented on a tasteful tray held by a handsome young usher at the entrance, the way a waiter might offer a glass of champagne. Unlike with bubbly, there were few takers. Those who did slip on a mask were rarely American and most often from Asia, where wearing a mask isn’t a matter of fear or paranoia, but consideration for others. Consideration.
Yet even in Paris, the center of the fashion universe, the masks were basic. White. Black. (Surely you didn’t think they’d be as awful as institutional blue?) Disposable.
By early April, a good Samaritan army of fashion industry workers was stitching up masks for first responders. They too were straightforward, generic. It didn’t matter who was creating the masks — whether it was Louis Vuitton reinventing its leather-goods factories or independent entrepreneurs in New York or Los Angeles opening up their small ateliers. There were no logos. Function was the only consideration.
Designer Christian Siriano was using a pattern issued by the New York governor’s office, and Fashion Girls for Humanity — a nonprofit organization founded in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan — offered downloadable patterns and construction information gathered from medical professionals.
Soon, however, function met form. That same month, the CDC changed course and advised everyone to wear a mask in public. The fashion industry fully committed to the effort. If a shopper goes to Etsy, there are — at last count — 250 pages of colorful, patterned nonmedical masks to click through. Neighborhood blogs are filled with offers from home sewers willing to stitch up distinctive masks for locals.
There are masks for every taste and budget. Some are printed with Edvard Munch-like open-mouthed screams. Goth masks mimic skeletal jaws. Disney is offering a preorder on four-packs of masks featuring its signature characters. High-end versions are constructed from fine Italian fabrics that really should be hand-washed rather than thrown into the Maytag. Others are covered in sequins. Some masks look to be so dense that they’d impede breathing; nonetheless, they’re stunning.
Almost all of them come with a promise of a charitable donation or a reassurance that no one is profiting . . . too much.