Should Masks Be Fashion Accessories?

For the foreseeable future, we will all be advised to wear masks in situations where social distancing isn’t possible. And with that, it’s created a new subset for many Americans: the fashion mask. We’ve already seen micro trends related to masks—namely the luxury designer mask or the perfectly matched mask and outfit. But while we all (should be) wearing masks, how does it feel to see something so associated with the loss and tragedy of the pandemic become part of a look? Below, five Vogue editors and writers discuss the rise of the fashion mask.

Sarah Spellings, fashion news editor: I’ve been thinking a lot about fashion masks, and how masks will fit into the fashion industry as they become such an important part of our wardrobes. For better or worse, that’s what it is: something we wear. So it’s not surprising that they’ve become a fashion statement—I’ve seen so many designers and celebrities showing off their masks which are very pretty. I wrote another guide to stylish masks, and I think anything that can be made beautiful should be. But it does make me feel a bit odd to talk about something medical as a fashion statement. What do y’all think?

Chioma Nnadi, fashion news director: Personally, I’ve leaned into it. I’ve found myself buying masks because they’re pretty, just like anything else. If the aim is to get people to wear masks, why not make them nice to look at? If I were a little kid for example, I would want something cute or nothing at all.

Liana Satenstein, senior fashion writer: I like the concept of creativity and masks which shows that you don’t have to be walking around with a standard medical version the whole time. Personally, the matching mask with full sets kind of feels unsettling, though. Maybe this is only when I see a prominent figure wear it. There is just…so much thought put into it that it feels unsettling. Obviously this is all opinion. But then again, if you’re a politician or celebrity and want to present yourself and have to encourage mask-wearing, maybe the coordination aspect is necessary. That being said, I don’t mind the small business fancy masks of Lou Dallas and Collina Strada…it’s just the matchy-matchy thing that throws me off.

Rickie De Sole, executive fashion director, vogue.com: I think wearing masks is so new for all us, people are going to embrace them differently. They are practical but also make for a compelling reflection of our mood and personality.

Chioma Nnadi: I think we will soon think of them in the same way we do sunglasses. They’re not the first functional things in our wardrobes to have become fashionable.

Rickie De Sole: I agree with that, Chioma. Much like sunglasses we need to try different styles to see what fits best.

Sarah Spellings: I’ve seen a few comments on Twitter expressing kind of an uneasiness about the fashion industry’s foray into mask making, especially with regards to masks by luxury brands or ones that match. I kind of understand the reticence to turn something necessary in such a scary time into a fashion statement. Like, flexing in a mask feels different from “oh I’m wearing this to survive.” But maybe as masks just become part of our lives, that uneasiness will fade too. But I think part of that may be that America didn’t have (and arguably still doesn’t have) any sense of wearing a mask as part of a common good or benefit.

Liana Satenstein: I like the idea of small labels and individuals but when masks are priced so high by a large clothing company? And who knows where they are made.

Chioma Nnadi: Same, I’m glad that young designers got a head start on this. And I’m only buying from small, local mask makers.

Emily Farra, senior fashion news writer: I think a lot of the hesitation definitely stems from the inconsistent narrative around masks. Less than two months ago, the CDC literally told us not to wear one at all—not because it wouldn’t help, but because they knew the hospitals were going to run out. And the fact that so many people don’t have access to masks at all makes me feel uneasy about “fashion masks.” Hospitals in NYC seem to be better equipped now, but other front line workers—at grocery stores, pharmacies, taxi drivers, etc—do not have access to masks. and i’ve heard there are major shortages at nursing homes.

Steff Yotka, fashion news and emerging platforms editor: To go back to Sarah’s point about unease about fashion mask-making: I think it’s important to be able to make an aesthetic choice about what your mask looks like, especially now that it seems like we will be wearing them for a long time. But masks becoming a status symbol is tricky territory to me—we’re wearing them for our health. Not to flex.

Chioma Nnadi: I decorated my cast when I twisted my ankle—definitely wore that for my health. Does that constitute a flex? I think many designers have been sensitive to [the accessibility issue] and are donating masks for each sold.

Emily Farra: Yes, that’s so important! The concept of making a profit on masks is really fraught. On one hand, people do need them, and these are the kinds of opportunities that arise from crises—but i’m glad most designers are giving a percent of proceeds to charity, or donating a mask for every sale, etc.

Rickie De Sole: I’ve been seeing so many people give cloth masks to others as gifts. Mostly fabric ones that have been made at home. There is a real community aspect about it that I love. I think we all need a reason to smile right now and a decorated mask might do just that!

Liana Satenstein: To Steff’s point: That story we did about the photographer photographing people’s masks in Brooklyn, it makes sense wearing one that has personality and is an expression of self and feels positive. It’s more welcoming even though you can’t see a person’s emotions. I think tricking it out yourself is fine. But we have to question: How are these made? What are the conditions of how these are being made (in general and during COVID?).

Emily Farra: Agree, I think Steff’s point was more about the slippery slope of masks becoming the new status symbol, i.e. designer masks or logo’d masks (to Liana’s point) not just the idea of masks being cute.

Steff Yotka: Agreed. I asked for a special cast when I broke my wrist! (All black of course.) Personal expression is so important for mental health and a sense of self—and we need that so much right now. But I think a flex is showing off a designer mask as a status symbol or luxury good.

Chioma Nnadi: I guess that doesn’t offend me as much as no mask.

Steff Yotka: No mask is the supreme worst. Even though the commodification of and capitalization on a healthcare item feels like murky ethical territory to me, I would still endorse a Supreme mask since it keeps you out of that Supreme coffin.

Sarah Spellings: But to move on to Liana’s point, there have been some reports about PPE made in sweatshops, which is endemic in the fashion industry across the board, but feels especially wrong for PPE.

Emily Farra: Yes, I’ve also been thinking about how these masks are made! On one hand, a lot of these factories have had massive order cancellations, so new orders for masks could be helping people stay employed. But I think the fact that these masks are functional and necessary has led people to buy them up quickly, perhaps without thinking about what they’re made of or who made them like we would a typical “fashion purchase.”

If masks are going to be our new accessory (which definitely seems to be the case) we should treat them like any other fashion purchase—something we want to wear, made by a company we want to support. It’s the same conversation as conscious/mindful consumption.

Rickie De Sole: It’s a rare moment when everyone in the US is focused on one singular item—it is natural that we will all embrace it differently. But bottom line, wear a mask!

https://www.vogue.com/article/masks-fashion-accessories