Stay safe, stay healthy – and stay fashionable. Maybe the Japanese can teach westerners how to appreciate face masks.
Italy is beginning to emerge from lockdown, even if true normality is a long way off. After 50 days confined inside my house high above Lake Como, I’ve had plenty of time to prepare my wardrobe for a return to the world outside.
I’ve always been the kind of person who has had hand sanitiser in my bag. But my latest acquisitions are two pretty and protective face masks. One is black with little silver polka dots for summer night strolls – very A/W2020. The other is white in a lace-like fabric – perfect for S/S 2020.
I love the idea of wearing them this summer, but perhaps I should be thinking longer term. This pandemic is unlikely to disappear quickly. The face mask, never adopted in the West, is about to become part of our way of life.
Talking frankly to my Italian friends and acquaintances, there are multiple and mixed opinions about wearing them. Some say they are useless as a protection, while others defiantly (and perhaps selfishly) say they are too ugly to wear. Others, like myself, are ready to embrace the face mask as a necessary precaution and a potential new genre of fashion accessory.
What is puzzling is why it took a pandemic for western nations to see the value of wearing protective face masks. In much of Asia, masks have been accessories for everyday use for decades.
Face masks first emerged in Japan in response to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. The Japanese protected their faces with every type of fabric, including scarves or veils. By the time of the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 that filled the air with smoke and ashes, masks had become part of the country’s culture. Today, the nation makes 4.3 billion face masks a year for personal use – and the typical Japanese citizen uses 43 masks a year.
Face masks are a familiar accessory on the streets of Tokyo and Yokohama, a trend that has spread to countries such as China and South Korea. China, in particularly, has embraced the face mask as a protective barrier in its pollution-filled big cities. In 2014, designer Yin Peng unveiled a line titled Smog Couture at China Fashion Week. Each garment was paired with a mask, from Darth Vadar-esque ventilators to full head riot-gear rebreathers.
Rosamond Lau, a fashionista originally from Hong Kong who lives in the English town of Leicester, was in the UK when the current pandemic started. Her parents were worried about the situation and ordered her to return home. Back in Hong Kong, she detected a much greater respect for other people, with mask wearing ubiquitous. She said: “I felt unsafe in the UK because no westerners were wearing masks.”
East and West have different cultures, and Lau is sceptical that face masks will be used long-term in the West. “I think westerners will only use masks for now and they will forget about it after the disease is gone. They’ll wear masks again when the next deadly virus breaks out.”
However, countering Lau’s view, it should be pointed out that Western fashion brands identified the importance of face masks in Asia long before the current pandemic and had already started to develop them as accessories. Gucci’s face mask, worn by singer Billie Eilish in January at this year’s Grammy Awards, really set the pace. It sold out at lightning speed.
The true must-have face mask to date comes courtesy of street-style fashion brand Off-White. According to the Lyst Index, Off-White’s Arrow face mask is the hottest men’s product in the world. The $95 face mask sold out across retailers worldwide and is currently listed at up to three times its original price on resale platforms.
As fashionable as a Gucci or Off-White face mask may be, safety still seems to be a key factor in mask purchases. People are willing to pay a higher price for a famous brand face mask with changeable filters to ensure both maximum protection and aesthetics.
The designer fashion industry has responded to the crisis impressively here in Italy. Armani and Prada were among the names who have reinvented themselves during the lockdown to make scrubs and protective face masks for hospitals. Younger, smaller and independent brands have also joined in, developing an array of practical – and often pretty – masks, both for fashion followers and healthcare workers.
Driven by the need to survive this crisis, companies and independent designers may have even gone into overproduction. However, the number of orders is, as expected, high and there is a chance of a second outbreak later in the year. We could wake up and COVID-19 eradicated as fast as it has spread.
British fashion designer and Central Saints Martins student Megan Park, who has been making face masks since the pandemic broke out, believes they will emerge as a big trend. “Even after isolation is over, I will still make them if people still want them. It’s good for me, and it’s helpful for people out there.”
What is needed in the West is a radical shift in attitude. We must rethink the face mask as an accessory which has both utilitarian benefits and aesthetic potential. Just as the craft of hatmaking can enhance and express a wearer’s identity and personality, so too can a beautifully chosen fabric for a face mask add a certain allure. And there is a pleasure, too, to be enjoyed in the anonymity offered by a face mask, as the Japanese well understand.
Consider designer Richard Quinn’s super-cute masks donated to Britain’s National Health Service. I expect the next series of runways, whether digital or physical, to be full of similar designs. Can’t wait to place my orders.