Remembering the Importance of the Surgical Face Mask and making it a Symbol of our Times.

If there is a symbol of the current world’s situation of turmoil, confusion, fear, the misinformation, panic and anxiety, generated by the spread of the new coronavirus, it is the surgical face mask.

Surgical masks have become an indelible part of daily life under lockdown

Remembering the mask, its those white or baby blue rectangles that over the mouth and nose, turning everyone into a muzzled pelican, or duck faced. This is not how history is going to remember the pandemic of 2020.

There are a number of changes in the way the face mask is shaping the society as we speak.

It is used for a number of reasons- Health being the first.

Health and Protection.

For the past few months public health officials have advised people to wear masks as a way to protect themselves from coronavirus. It does some benefit to covering our faces in public and reduces the chances of getting infected.

Due to the widespread pandemic, the masks began appearing almost immediately after the infection was identified. People all over the world started purchasing masks for protection. It has become a common sight on the streets of cities like New York and London in recent weeks. Though wearing them has long been the norm in Asian capitals like Tokyo and Hanoi.

Even more than bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, the mask has become the virus’s avatar or mascot; shorthand for the desire to hide, inability to protect ourselves, and desire to do something — anything— to appear to take action.

But the main question a lot of people have due to peer pressure and government urgency is “Whether to ‘wear or not to wear a mask” as many do not like being told what to do. Some even find is unnecessary and ugly.

As a lot of people have doubts as to its effectiveness

Still its important to not totally do away with the mask. The World Health Organization emphasises that face masks cannot protect against the Corona virus when used alone, and that they are only effective if used in combination with frequent hand washing.

Masks should be worn if you have a cough or fever or by those who are taking care of a person with suspected covid 19 infection. Or to shield yourself from crowds.

An approach being emphasised, because hoardings of the masks by average citizens led to severe shortages for medical professionals who needed them the most. Every one agreed that available supply of medical masks should be reserved for hospitals and emergency workers, so if you wanted to wear a mask, you would have to make it yourself. That’s where people started making their own and customising it thus making it a strong symbol of our time!

How did “what is essentially some gauze held on by straps”, take on so much meaning?

The ‘Mask’ has represented safety and protection from disease and pollution; solidarity; protest; racism; a fashion trend; and now, pandemic. They have been, said Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a sign of “something that hides but also communicates.” It is, he said, “an interesting dialectic, and one very dependent on context.”

In the world of Fashion……

In a matter of time, fashion took note — fashion always does, when it comes to items that signal identity — and sensing opportunity, rose to meet it in so many ways. Fashion has always drawn inspiration from what’s going on in the world, and in 2020 this is no different. Even before the coronavirus was reported in December 2019, avant-garde fashion designers had already included a new accessory in their collections: the face mask. This trend has established itself and fashion enthusiasts are wearing them more than ever.

While the use of these fashionable face masks is not advised as a preventative measure, if you’re looking for inspiration to look a bit more trendy, look no further than the attendees of major fashion events and the runways of London, Paris, New York City, and Milan.

Most designers took to making their own masks, Prada, Cos, Zara, Mango, Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and other leading fashion brands are retooling to manufacture surgical face masks in response to the shortages caused by Covid 19. Yves saint Laurent and Balenciaga began production of cotton face masks, thus, wearing a mask, has not only become a norm but a fashion statement.

A number of brands too are putting a creative twist on the newly ubiquitous items, hoping to inject some colour and positivity into an otherwise sobering perhaps even scary item.

Other brands with unique face masks are namely Lekko, Freka, Vogmask, Scough, Tecmask, Airpop, G95 Bioscarf.

The Qiaodan Yin Peng Sportswear collection put face masks on the runway during China Fashion Week in 2014. Masha Ma, a Chinese designer showing in Paris, featured a Swarovski-studded look in her spring 2015 show.

Masks were adopted as expressions of — or challenges to — creative identity by the rappers Ayleo and Mateo Bowles (Ayo & Teo), who started wearing them, reportedly because people were making fun of their facial expressions; soon it had become their signature accessory.

Future and his daughter wore matching elaborate gem-studded masks to the 2017 BET awards as a promo for his performance of “Mask Off.” Zoe Dupree, the stylist for Young Thug, christened the styles “Smog Couture.”

Over the last three years, brands including Off-White, Palm Angels, Bathing Ape and Fendi have offered designer face masks. Gucci made one for Billie Eilish to wear with her all-Gucci look at the Grammys, as part of her message that her body is her own, for her eyes only.

Less than a month ago, celebrities and models began to post selfies in their masks on social media — most often from airplanes, but also from the street. Bella Hadid on her flight out of Milan, in a fedora, scarf and surgical face mask. There was Gwyneth Paltrow en route to Paris in a black Nemen x Airinum breathing mask.

Today there are pages and pages of face masks on Etsy. Most of them are simply pieces of fabric with straps, decorated with puppy dogs, Wonder Woman, Star Wars, rainbows and other designs, and ranging from $6.99 to about $40. It is often described as “the real must-have accessory, both in terms of utility and coolness, of the 21st century.”

More recently, during the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, face masks (and especially black face masks) were worn as both a political statement and as a tool for disguising identity from closed-circuit TV cameras. They became so popular that the government went so far as to try to ban them, immediately elevating them to a symbol of revolt.

Masks as part of our daily lives now….

 To conclude, because we attribute so much meaning to the human face and its expressions, to cover it, to hide what is the most naked, accessible, part of yourself, can be deeply unsettling and alienating to those around us.

In the past, the masks made many viewers uneasy, but not this season. “People were more and more enthusiastic about it,” “But it’s not really a positive thing, I think.” Sad to say we have to live in a toxic world where the mask has now become our only tool for protection, but this is not how our future is going to look.

We find most often the mask is used a s a counter measure to cover up what we don’t want from the outside world, be it pollution, or for religious purposes, to hide from being noticed.

A lot is always made about the eyes being the window to the soul and blah blah blah, but the mouth is as important a guide to emotions. It’s part of how we read one another’s feelings. The mask is a form of expression to show we are not just protecting ourselves but protecting others from ourselves and being one in the war to fight against the deadly virus.

“A mask creates a barrier between you and the world,” It protects you, but it also means you can’t get close to someone.

For most designers who sell masks and the rich community as a whole, it’s an awkward conversation to have. To sell masks at a premium, as many brands do, during a crisis, can seem like profiteering. Not to mention a perpetuating of class difference. Who can afford to pay for the protection of their choice?

Perhaps we will reach the point where wearing a mask will be seen, as it is in Asia, as a sign of care and a gesture of community. Where wearing a mask is not a sign of fear and difference, but of human commonality. Perhaps they will remain an uneasy subject, representation of a cratering society.

And either way, they are not going away. “Masks are very hard to get now.” And when things become scarce, they also become “very desirable.”

The future of our world is changing, the mask being a very strong symbol of today only shows us how toxic our planet has become. Fashion has brought a fresh perspective by making a normal surgical mask that is so unsatisfying and sad to turning it into a fashion accessory to bring colour and positive change. Let’s look at this aspect and bring ourselves up and still find hope in the crises we are in today. we all just need to think positively and act with caution. Our earth is crying out for help. Lets all listen and work together to make this world a better place.

Authored by –

Danielle Flanagan Instagram: @danielleflan

Assistant Professor/Programme Coordinator

ITM Institute of Design and Media