Fashionable face masks: why the decorative trend is so controversial

Their current usage is somewhat questionable given medical advice about when and where to use face masks, but this isn't a new trend

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 03: A guest wears a face mask with embroidered white flowers, a pale blue Chanel quilted bag, a pink jacket a flowing ruffled dress with printed geometric patterns, outside Chanel, during Paris Fashion Week - Womenswear Fall/Winter 2020/2021 on March 03, 2020 in Paris, France. Due to a sharp increase in the number of cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) declared in Paris and throughout France, several sporting, cultural and festive events have been postponed or canceled. The epidemic has exceeded 3200 dead for more than 92000 infections in sixty countries. To cope, the French government will requisition the stocks of protective masks by means of a decree published on Thursday. (Photo by Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images)
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Last week, luxury fashion houses Saint Laurent and Balenciaga announced that their workshops in France would be given over to the production of surgical face masks, instead of clothes, while parent company Kering Group will donate an additional three million masks to the French healthcare system.

Meanwhile Gucci, also part of the Kering stable, has announced that it aims to produce one million face masks in the coming days for Italian health services, while Mango has declared its intention to donate up to two million to hospitals in Spain, where it is based.

However, medical-grade masks aside, decorative, albeit medically ineffectual, face coverings, too, are popping up on social feeds and in online stores, sparking both interest and controversy.

Decorative face masks are not a new trend

Of course, masks were being worn long before the outbreak of Covid-19 – in cities with air pollution, by activists hiding their faces during rallies and by many healthy citizens of East Asia in crowded places and on public transport.

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 28: A guest is seen wearing a Chanel mask outside the Balmain show during Paris Fashion Week: AW20 on February 28, 2020 in Paris, France. (Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
A guest is seen wearing a Chanel mask outside the Balmain show during Paris Fashion Wee. Getty.

Face masks have historically been seen on fashion runways, too. For spring / summer 2015, Chinese designer Masha Ma incorporated Swarovski crystal-­studded renditions into her collection at Paris Fashion Week, and in 2016, Indian fashion designer Manish Arora collaborated with the California fashion house Vogmask. Celebrities have been instrumental in driving demand for face masks for aesthetic purposes.

Ariana Grande's 2019 Sweetener tour merchandise included pink and black face masks with the words "Thank U, Next", the title of her hit song, scrawled across them in graffiti-style font. At the Grammys this year, Billie Eilish donned a head-to-toe Gucci look that included gloves and a Gucci-logo-­covered mesh face mask. Meanwhile some guests at this month's Paris Fashion Week sported Chanel-branded face coverings. 

The WHO states masks should only be worn in some cases

As far as the current pandemic is concerned, the World Health Organisation has stated that when it comes to the coronavirus, masks only need to be worn by those who are infected and those taking care of people who are infected. However, with the virus having sparked panic-buying and hoarding, face masks have landed on the shopping lists of consumers worldwide.

On March 15, Forbes noted in an Instagram post: “Luxury retail is expected to take a $33 to $44 billion hit this year as the wealthy stay away from shops. Many fear contagion in the retail space, while others see little point in buying things like fashion or jewellery if there is no opportunity to show them off.

“The exception to the luxury rule is, bizarrely, fashionable face masks. Shoppers are now signing up to join waiting lists for certain multi-layer masks.”

The bizarreness of the trend aside, sites such as Ellessco and Vogmask, which sell affordable filtration and respiratory masks in leopard, floral and paisley prints, are both currently out of stock of face masks.

Online marketplace Etsy, meanwhile, contains more than 800 search results for “face mask”, with many tagged with a “bestseller” ribbon. From images of Minnie Mouse to reindeer and roses, the options are seemingly endless for customers seeking peppy prints and patterns that offer no protection whatsoever.

Luxury face masks: the next big thing?

Luxury designers, too, are jumping on the mask bandwagon. French fashion designer Marine Serre launched the Marine Serre X Airinum Urban Air Mask 2.0. Priced at $295 (Dh1,085), the black jersey mask is fitted with air filters and crescent Moon motifs. 

Despite the hefty price for a garment that essentially offers no real protection, the collaboration swiftly sold out within weeks of launching, as did Swedish brand Airinum’s regular range of patterned respiratory masks – its website directs customers to sign up to a waiting list, with new stock expected to arrive in July.  

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Buzz Foto/Shutterstock (4725106r)
Tala Alamuddin
George Clooney and Amal Clooney out and about, New York, America - 28 Apr 2015
George Clooney, Amal Clooney and Amal's parants and sister Tala Alamuddin get dinner at Caravaggio in the Upper East Side
Tala Alamuddin's label now offers fashionable facemasks and pouches. Buzz Foto / Shutterstock

Tala Alamuddin, sister of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, also released a range of face masks through her fashion label Tala, with proceeds going to the Red Cross. The masks, which retail for about Dh120, come in an assortment of camouflage, leopard and denim designs, with upbeat names such as punk pink camo and cool cat blue.

The designer is a resident of Singapore, where face masks are a common sight, but was criticised by some for trying to cash in on a world pandemic. In her defence, Alamuddin said: “Part of Tala brand’s mission is to make a difference wherever we can … through fashion. Masks are a staple in Asian households, and used regularly for colds, pollution and cosmetic recovery.”

Fatma Al Mulla exhibited her T-shirts and tech accessories at the Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier this month
Fatma Al Mulla exhibited her T-shirts and tech accessories at the Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier this month

The trend has also garnered local traction. Emirati graphic and fashion designer Fatma Al Mulla exhibited her T-shirts and tech accessories at the Middle East Film and Comic Con earlier this month, where she also introduced face masks with colourful patterns infused with Arabic pop culture, such as her trademark din oud bottle print, and a monochrome striped version with a big smiley face in the centre.

Others come with embellishments, such as pearls and layered floral motifs in purple, pink, orange and green hues. “They aren’t medical masks – they are more of a fun fashion statement,” she says. “The material is soft and comfortable.”

Whether you view decorative masks as acceptable or excessive, there seems to be a psychological element at play. Like collecting signatures on a plaster cast or doodling on it to make it your own, designs that stand out can help boost the morale of those who are healthy but troubled by all the uncertainty.