The Mask: Covid-19, Eilish, Fashion, + Climate
As many of you may be aware, the bush fires of Australia have been particularly devastating this year. The eastern and southern coasts of Australia have been engulfed in flames, with more than 10 million hectares of bush, parks and forests suffered immensely from the burning. At present, it is estimated that approximately 1.25 billion animals have died as a result of the fires, including high numbers of kangaroos and koalas. It is believed that 30 people have died, a figure that could exponentially increase in light of the noxious, smoky air that has blanketed parts of Australia. The danger of this smoky atmosphere comes from microscopic particles which can get into the respiratory system and cause health problems and illnesses. For Australians, it is looking more and more likely that a temporary solution of alleviating (or at least postponing) the onset of any health-related issues is by wearing a face mask.
The wearing of the face mask is not something new, however. We’re all quite used to seeing people wearing surgical masks following the 2002 outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong, particularly in Asian culture. However, that was just another incident in a long history of diseases and pollution affecting the far East where sales of face masks have historically been high. The recent developments of the Coronavirus outbreak are similarly causing spikes in the market of face masks, not only in China and the far East, but on a global scale.
Wearing facemasks is now much more commonplace in countries where it has not been always been a daily custom due to contextual factors such as pollution level, etc. In Japan, where pollution is not a huge issue, people are also wearing face masks for cosmetic and cultural reasons. If a woman is not wearing makeup, she will often elect to wear a face mask as a cover up to distract from the fact she has not beautified herself – a similar analogy to wearing a hat on a “bad-hair day”. Also ingrained into Japanese culture is the idea of ‘honne-tatemae’, where a person’s true emotions are to be disguised and in no way reflected in their public behaviour. The growing cultural incorporation of the facemask as a means of covering up for the sake of hiding an appearance is also epitomised through drill rappers in the UK. Time and time again, in lieu of blurring their faces in music videos, these British musicians will opt to wear a face mask, combining the necessity to conceal their identities with stylistic choices.
“WHAT BEGAN AS BOTH A SHIELD TO HIDE BEHIND AND A UNIFYING SYMBOL FOR GANG MEMBERS HAS IRONICALLY BECOME A FORM OF IDENTIFICATION, BECOMING INCORPORATED INTO MAINSTREAM WESTERN CULTURE AS AN ITEM OF STREETWEAR.”
Being popularized through music, it is understandable why face masks are being worn as fashion statements amongst the youth. Virgil Abloh’s ‘Off-White’ has featured face masks in his collection priced at a designer benchmark. In its popularity, the fashionable face of wearing these masks is a cross-over between electing to banish germs, breathe clean air, and a choice of sartorial expression. In this last choice of wear-ability, it leads us to witness the glamorization of something quite horrific. Comparing solely aesthetic designer masks to those being produced by the New Zealand brand Meo, we observe the latter creating and marketing face masks which are intended to be anti-pollution respirators. These have a wealth of scientific research and innovation behind them and are also at a fraction of the price of designer face masks. Depicting these face masks as ‘hip and trendy’ accessories first and foremost is conceptually stygian.
“THE MILITARISTIC AND ALMOST DYSTOPIAN ELEMENT TO WEARING A DEVICE TO BREATHE AND EXIST RAISES DISTURBING QUESTIONS ABOUT POLITICS, PARTICULARLY OF THE CLIMATE AND CARBON CONSCIOUSNESS.”
So, whilst some youths cover their faces to look edgy, others will do so to look cool, and others will do so to be able to breathe. These are not, first and foremost, “fashion items”, and farcically declaring them as so is incredibly ignorant. However, the collaboration of such companies with designers such as Karen Walker shows the intermingling of fashion and medicine. These items are being marketed and sold as “cool objects”, brightly coloured, uniquely patterned, and worn by so many of today’s “trailblazing” youth (e.g. Billie Eilish). Yet, in doing so, these products are being marketed in a way in which shuns their original purpose and serves to shut down questions of the reasons why they are a necessity in some countries, yet a “fashion item” in ours.
The medicalization of fashion is, I suppose, a way to kill two birds with one stone. Wearing face masks for fashion solely isn’t problematic, wearing them for medical reasons isn’t either, and wearing them for both is okay. It is fashionable to see Billie Eilish rocking a face mask at the Grammy Awards, just as it is seeing it on the catwalk or upon the faces of daring youngsters. The issue to be taken is that we have gotten to the point where some people need them to survive; instead of implementing more and more coping strategies, authorities ought to address the issues head on (or rather, face on). There needs to be a reversal of our current situation, a sustainable solution, and an efficient policy targeted towards ensuring things improve. In the meantime, businesses will profit from the spiralling environmental and health situation, including fashion houses.
Some may valiantly cry out and say, “at least they’re making them look nice, and they do help!”. Yes. They do. Yet we cannot consistently cover up our faces and ignore the larger problem. We are complicit in wearing this temporary solution, one that, in time, may become a permanent medical reality for us all.