Now that we’ve been told, after conflicting professional opinions, that even a cloth face mask may help in the fight against COVID-19, supported by the issue of one to every citizen by the government, a lot more people are indeed wearing them. Will fashion masks, once a novelty, now be very much sort after?
The government-issued cloth mask
Cloth masks: Who’d think they would be so approved that they are now worn as barrier between us and one dreaded coronavirus? Although many experts have said that cloth masks are as effective as a placebo, they are now adopted as a better-than-nothing shield, encouraged by our government who has started issuing a black, suitable-for-the-cinematic-baddie piece to its citizens since last Sunday. So villainous-looking they are, it would be surprising that just two weeks ago, banking halls would allow any visitor into their premises without its removal. Now, many are wearing the freebie at points of transaction, from Fairprice to Gong Cha, yes, to POSB, with more diligence than actresses and their Book tote at the grocers’.
Up close, there is something strangely underclothes-like about these masks. Made in Indonesia, of a fabric that is 95 percent (not 100) cotton credited as BCI (Better Cotton Initiative, or “global not-for-profit organisation and the largest cotton sustainability programme in the world”) and five percent Spandex (for stretch), they are essentially leotard for face. And the ellipses, with a dart in the top-centre (to accommodate the nose), fit like one too—skin-tight, unless the front of your head is narrow across the cheeks and incredibly V-shaped at the chin. But for many—guys especially—these cloth masks slip on too closely like gloves. So fitted they are for some, that there are those who thought they had received masks for kids! Sure, these are not akin to compression wear, which could be of up to 30 percent of Spandex, but the considerably thick three-ply mask may cup too effectively, like good brassieres.
Washing them actually makes them a tad softer, and repeated use will render them a slight looseness (we’ve put ours for a five-day trial). If you wear them daily, and wash them as often (recommended), chances are, you’ll end up with a mask that will give your dish cloth tough competition in the looking good stakes. We tested the cloth mask during the day and at night. There is no tangible difference—the face will be heated up, whether at sun up or down. Not recommended for making a dash to 7-Eleven, unless you are a qigong master who has mastered the art of breathing slowly, minimally, or not breathing at all. As the straps are in the same cotton-blend fabric and not adjustable, they may be too tight for some wearers, even tugging the ears, which could mean that wearing for long hours would be uncomfortable. Comfort is, of course, subjective. Don’t take our word for it. Try them.
Double the protection?
We have seen, since the distribution of the mask (already on sale at Guardian prior), individuals personalising them. The ubiquity of that one black mask (apparently there are others issued with those not in solid black, such as green and white awning stripes. We have not been able to independently verify this talk) unsurprising spurs individualists to make theirs less stark and less evocative of a dystopian world. Often seen is the use of a bandana, folded into a triangle, and worn in a manner that would not be inconsistent with the face coverings of robbers in a John Wayne western. It isn’t certain if this is to double the protection or give the black mask an attractive outer. We have also witness guys wearing a balaclava or a snood over the said mask. Why create more of a heat trap is not immediately understandable.
Now that we have to wear a mask on public transport, as well as in malls and markets, it is likely that what we have amassed, when the single-use were still available, would soon run out. And one free cloth mask will, in no time, be worn till torn. Those with a flair are starting to sew their own. Even if you have never touched a needle in your life and can’t tell the difference between a spool and a bobbin, you can make your own mask, or so we have been told. Countless tutorial are now posted on line, with some blogs offering printable paper patterns too, which would surely delight those for whom such precision matter. Even Wired ran an article entitled “How to Make a CDC-Approved Cloth Face Mask”, if the (US) Centres for Disease Control’s approval makes a difference or is added inducement.
Then there are the no-sew face masks, essentially a handkerchief or the like, folded in a very specific way, to which hair ties are attached to be looped behind the wearer’s ears. Even filters (such as coffee filters, apparently) can be folded inside for added protection. This may be more popular among DIY-ers as they can use whatever fabric (recommend is 100% tightly woven cotton), in their preferred print or pattern, to fashion face masks. We heard that some socialites have been using their Hermès scarves for this very purpose. While T-shirts, too, can be used, we weren’t told of those who have gleefully sacrificed their Balenciaga tees since that would require the cutting up of the garment. What we found more interesting are cloth slipcases sewn by certain individuals in the hair and make-up fraternity, and shared among members of the fashion media. These are essentially for use with the surgical mask, which is slipped into slipcase, itself sans elasticised ear loops, but are pleated to match and stretch open like the mask within.
Pretty is the point: Some masks just look better than others
Expectedly, the fashion set has been building a wardrobe of masks, in particular, from three brands known to offer striking (not necessarily virus-repellent) ones: Off-White, Marine Serre, and Marcelo Burlon County of Milan (unsurprisingly, most stockists, such as Ssense, will show ‘Sold Out’ under the product photos). Masks are also made by luxury giants such as Prada, Dior, and Louis Vuitton (there’s even a video showing LV seamstresses at work in the presence of strategically-placed products), but these are destined for medical facilities not their respective flagship stores. It is not fathomable that fashion is so vital now that we would need a few masks fetching enough to go with one’s on-trend togs. Who is thinking of fashion when going out is not fashionable?
Apparently quite a few, enough of them, in fact, to allow local company Hwa Seng Textiles, a fabric distributor that also offers bespoke tailoring service and professional instruction in tailoring, to see a business opportunity and a new product category: masks. Promising “low running cost”, HST Masks (as they are branded) are CAD-designed and sewn in their facilities here, using their own (mainly) shirting fabrics. The result are masks that invite the description “handsome”, if not for the fabric choice, at least in the decidedly 3-D form factor. Aware of their cloth masks’ potential appeal among the fashion conscious, Hwa Seng Textiles even hashtagged their products “#designermask” in their social-media marketing. At S$30 a pop, these are by no means cheap, but they do look attractive, even if wearing one makes no difference to pandemic viruses that have no appreciation of the aesthetically superior, just as they have no respect for national borders.
Cloth masks may not offer the same protection as surgical masks, but they may, according to the CDC, block large particles ejected from sneezing and coughing. COVID-19 isn’t fading or yesterday’s news. We need to blunt this very real threat. Get—or make—yourself a cloth mask.
Update (14 April 2020, 9.00pm): it was just announced that the “public must wear mask when outdoors in Singapore from now on”. Please take heed.
Photos: Zhao Xiangji