Mask: A Fashion Statement

Looks like wearing a surgical—even industrial—mask is now fashionable, besides being a sickness-spreading-prevention necessity


Mask 2020 P1Given the present situation, masks are not a hindrance to fashionable turn out

Without sounding flippant, even frivolous, masks are now a fashion statement. Consider this: we were in the MRT train (the Downtown Line, to set the scene) and two girls suddenly appeared before us, leaning, as many girls are inclined to, on a grab pole. One of them, her young face was shielded by a mask that was too big for her. It did not, in fact, look anything like the gov-issued ones; it was nice-looking, it was fashionably black. Her friend, totally unmasked, asked her why she bothered wearing one when she was not ill. The reply was swift: “You don’t know, meh? Aiya, it’s now the trend, mah”. To their credit, they were dress fashionably (which should not be taken to mean well). The mask on that girl is face accessory as, some time, veils are, and she looked like she was doing what’s increasingly the thing to do among some lasses: obscure the body and, now, the face.

If one has to go through such trouble to don a mask, one might as well make it look great. As a matter of fact, some do. Billie Eilish has, as you’re probably aware, made mask-wearing her signature style, although, for hypochondriacs, it should be said that hers have no protective function other than a decorative, statement-making one. On those occasions Ms Eilish’s face isn’t blocked, we see a young Scarlett Johansson with shades of Patsy Kensit, and Miley Cyrus brushed in for good measure. We don’t know why we see the triumvirate; we just do. Nothing good or bad. A mask just makes it even harder to take a side.

Masks 2020 P6Masks are looking less and less destined for the operating theatre

To be sure, masks—specifically surgical masks—today should not be regarded lightly or be worn carelessly, no matter the prevailing winds of fashion. They do not constitute a trifling matter. Its shortage—not just locally, but globally—is a serious problem, especially in cities that are experiencing insufficiency and among people who need them urgently, such as hospital staff. The situation, as we have unfortunately seen, is made more severe (and ugly) by those who worsen the scarcity by stockpiling, as well as those who seek to profiteer by selling at higher-than-usual prices, sans guilt. This makes talking about masks used as fashion accessory possibly facetious. Yet, there are those who would wear the nose-and-mouth covering as a style statement.

If you Google ‘surgical mask’ and choose the Images option, above the expected photos of actual surgical masks (some modelled by individuals who look like medical professionals) is a tab that reads ‘fashion’. This is the first among 30 to choose from, and it appears before ‘nurse’, ‘anime’, ‘wearing’; way before ‘n95’ (the 7th)! It isn’t certain if the fashion mask coming before all others is a reflection of what’s trending or furiously searched, but the appearance of those masks in assorted colours—even in prints—is indication that mask wearers are as concerned of contracting a coronavirus as wanting to look good in something usually associated with hospitals or, increasingly, with the annual haze in the second half of the year.

Masks @ LV storeStaff and customers are similarly masked at Louis Vuitton

Things have changed. No need to go into details or quote published figures to substantiate how masks are now an urban necessity, regardless of what our government (or the WHO) has emphasised: “Do not use if you are well”, as seen on the literature that accompanies the pack of four distributed to residents early this month. Despite what many in this city calls a “scary” situation (so frightening, in fact, that masks were reported to be sold out island-wide even before the Lunar New Year), an increasing number of wearers are making surgical masks (and their industrial siblings) a part of fashionable expression. If you are, we suppose, going to be in a heavily monogrammed T-shirt by your favourite brand, a govt-issued one won’t cut it. As fashion folks repeatedly told us, “the minimum is all-black”.

While mask-wearing has become common in many cities in East Asia, it has not been widely seen on Singaporean faces, not even after the SARS outbreak of 2003. Like everything else we wear or do not, the weather is the root of all our sartorial shortcomings and physical ills, which include coughs and colds. Cities such as Taipei, Hong Kong and Bangkok could be unbearably hot, but the high temperatures have not deterred the folks to forsake a mask when there is a need to wear one. At one Kopitiam food court a few days ago, we heard a middle-aged woman tell her companion, presumably in response to MOH’s urging that a tissue should be used to cover the mouth when when one coughs (or sneezes), “Aiya, want to cough, got (sic) time to take out tissue, meh?” It is, therefore, eye-opening that masks are presently more visible than they have ever been.

Masks 2020 P2The wearing of masks is not necessarily a solo. choice

In Asia, the Japanese have, for a long time, worn surgical masks in public even when their cities are not under the equivalent of DORSCON orange. The habit (rather than trend) goes back even before the SARS outbreak, and is believed to have become more visible after the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster of 2011. City dwellers, subsequently, wore what is today known as “courtesy masks”, usually used when one is unwell (or even when merely thinking that one might be ailing), a practice that has become as much acquired behaviour as social etiquette. We have read in reports that, increasingly, Japanese women are wearing surgical masks to shield their makeup-free faces from the world (rather than apply colour on the way to work?), which may explain the striking range of masks in non-traditional colours available in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. And not at street-side stalls, but in proper retail outfits such as the 88-year-old Matsumoto Kiyoshi chain pharmacy.

Masks in Japan are used by both young and older wearers as accessories, and very much a part of good grooming. Or, a shield to make some wearers more attractive, or even to, we were told, “block off communication with others” (Match-JP called it “struggling with social awkwardness”). One poll conducted in the same year of the Fukushima mishap by Japanese news portal News Post Seven found that, among 100 individuals—aged between 10 and 30—surveyed in Shibuya, the bedrock of Japanese youth culture, 30 percent of them chose to wear masks for purposes completely unconnected to health. Medical-grade masks for non-surgical use have since become so popular that its production in Japan has risen staggeringly. According to data by the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association, in 2018, more than 5.5 billion masks across all categories were produced for a population of 126.8 million people (as of 2017). Of these, 4.3 billion were for personal use. And possibly, more than half of that for expressing individual style.

Mask 2020 P3Surgical and anti-pollution masks now come in trendy patterns such as the camo

As expected, the Koreans, too, were soon seen shielding their nose/mouth area of the face for no medical reason, with the boys of BTS (Suga and Kim Tae-Hyung are frequent wearers) making redundant usage trendier and seductively imitable. Even US stars, such as rap artistes Ayo & Teo—check out their music video for Rolex—and Future (the now pre-mature Mask Off) followed. The wearing of masks caught on in China too, especially in Beijing, where dust storms can seriously choke the city, making surgical masks and N95s comprehensible necessity. A new level of popularity of mask use was reached last year when during the protracted Hong Kong anti-extradition-bill-turned-political-protests, surgical masks—especially in black—became both a symbol of defiance and a way to conceal the wearer from police identification.

At some point, fashion has to be worked into the equation. We have noticed, when we were abroad, surgical masks of not just different colours, we, too, have seen and were amused by those in assorted patterns. The Japanese have not only created those of considerable fashion wow, but also pieces that are extremely well-designed and comfortable to wear (we came across one with an additional flap as bridge that cups the nose, eliminating the need to pinch the stiff upper edge of the standard-issue surgical mask to ‘seal’ the top). On home ground, it isn’t clear if the shortage of masks at legitimate retail outlets is forcing mask seekers to look elsewhere for them. Of late, masks are no longer the three-ply, one-side green (or blue) ones that you see hospital staff use or what many generally wear.

Masks street stalls BKKDespite reports of surgical masks sold out in pharmacies, Bangkok streets still see many of them sold, especially those in colourful prints

We hear that many of these “fancy” masks*, as one fashion stylist calls them, are bought overseas, or online. Despite the reported shortage, China—in cities such as Guangzhou in the south and Shenyang in the north—is apparently where for-fashion surgical masks are available to buy, in hospitals-will-likely-frown-upon colours, such as lime green, and prints, such as tartan, which in themselves raise the question, how legit are they?  Even popular e-commerce sites Qoo10 and Shoppee offer no assurance for those sold on their respective platforms. So shady have the proliferation of masks been that videos have appeared on YouTube instructing viewers how to tell the real deal from the fakes. Unsurprisingly, they do exist, like bootleg, well, almost anything.

In Bangkok, a city that is still welcoming mainland Chinese tourists with open (and sanitised) arms, fancy masks are hawked on the streets and in markets—night and weekend—and snapped up by locals and tourists alike. There are coloured, 3M-branded (but not identified by their model number) N95s, surgical masks in cute repeated patterns, filter masks with beak-like fronts (some marked PM2.5, which is meant to be good against bacteria and viruses); Pitta masks minus any visible filters; and dystopia-worthy respirator-masks with indescribable attachments. Many urbanites, a local source told us, now have a wardrobe of masks so that there would “always be one in the right look, shape, and colour to go with the OOTD”.

Masks 2020 P5Assorted masks send to us by SOTD contributors when we said we were researching to do this post

From our own (admittedly unscientific) local observation, more men wear fancy masks than women, who tend to prefer the standard-issue-looking, but in pastel pink. Especially popular (hence, even harder to find) among fashion types are Pitta masks. “They look sleek,” one wearer on a Bugis-bound bus told us shortly after the DORSCON orange announcement. Pitta mask derives its name from the Japanese word pitari (ピッタリ), which means perfect fit. The snugness (face-con?) of the Pitta mask is its appeal and their popularity among celebrities gives them the all-important fashion cred. Despite their good looks, Pitta masks are not thought to offer adequate protection against the microscopic. To be fair, on the packaging, the manufacturer claims “99% effectiveness” for filtering pollen and dust particles.

One Singaporean chemical engineer Neo Kang Wei conducted testing on the Pitta for his employer Smart Air, a creator of “clean air tools”, and found that these masks “captured an astounding 0% of 0.3-micron particles and only 64% of larger 2.5-micron particles,” he concluded in a blog post. In other words, the “data shows that the Pitta mask is not effective at capturing small particles… it won’t do a good job filtering things like PM2.5, viruses, bacteria or fine particles.” Still, its popularity is unaffected. The preferred colour, we have been repeatedly told, is black (we, in fact, like the gray more—it isn’t so hard). The bus passenger told us that dark colours are preferred because “those close to nude look like Uniqlo’s Wireless Bras!” So, now we know.

Masks 2020 P4The many faces of surgical masks

As for actual ‘fashion’ masks, rungs below ‘fancy’ masks on the virus-shielding effectiveness scale, they have been around for a while. What comes immediately to mind are those by Marcelo Burlon, County of Milan, in particular the ‘Wings’ fabric masks and the Heron Preston “pollution mask” with para-cord serving as straps for the ears, as well as for framing the mask. Off-white die-hards will add to that Virgil Abloh’s loosely fitted ‘Arrow’ masks and Bape fans will, in response, include the brand’s popular ‘Shark’ mask. We, too, recall Marine Serre’s R-PUR filter-included masks from last year that were fashioned in a stretch-weave, sporting her signature double-registration, crescent-moon repeated pattern.

But it was, perhaps, Chinese designers who had initiated the trend much earlier, likely as a visual statement to respond to worsening air pollution in their capital city. In 2014, Xander Zhou and compatriots Qiu Hao and Masha Ma collaborated with Yoox to create stylish masks under the e-tailer’s Yooxygen initiative. Probably buoyed by the project’s success (which drew international attention), Ms Ma sent models out, for her spring/summer 2015 collection shown in Paris, in masks that were delicately embroidered and also encrusted with virus-fears-not Swarovski crystals. The potential of masks as fashion items may explain the recent proliferation of mask brands that marry fashion and function, such as Shanghai-based Airpop, Australian-owned AusAir, and California’s Vogmask.

Masks 2020 P7Mask-less, the odd one out?

With the novel coronavirus (now better known as COVID-19) rising and air quality plummeting, surgical masks and the look-a-likes (hopefully, work-a-likes) will become as prevalent and accepted as baseball caps. For the present, perhaps safety should supersede style. While much is said about its use by both authoritative and scripted voices—from physicians to stars, there is insufficient guidance on the safest way to dispose these single-use masks (not to be worn for more than a day, we’re told, and definitely not when they become wet). How they should be worn—and when—seem to have overshadowed what needs to be done when you’re done with them.

A used mask, however attractive or beautifully patterned, must be rid of in a sanitary way; it must not be placed in pockets or bags, or, worse, secured under the chin. Microbes do collect on the surface of the mask and can be spread by careless disposal or inappropriate/needless storage. The mask is best removed from the face by holding the ear loops or straps to avoid accidental touching of the surfaces. It should then be placed in a plastic bag and discarded in a covered garbage bin. No single-use mask can have a second life, not even after steaming it, as per one suggestion making the digital rounds. As with its disposal, there is no mention about how we’re going to manage these masks at the end of the outbreak. Are they environmentally friendly? That’s another issue altogether, but one thing must be clear and encouraged: say no to scalpers!

*Editor’s note: we cannot vouch for the safety or efficacy of these fancy masks or those not bought in, say, a pharmacy. We, therefore, urge purchase with caution. 

Photos: Zhao Xiangji, Iconiq Samsuddin, and Narak Kornkanok

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