Is it shallow to make a case for more 'fashionable' protective cloth masks?

Irama and Victoria Stella Doritou attend the Etro fashion show during Milan Digital Fashion Week on July 15, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Photo by Alessandro Bremec/ NurPhoto via Getty Images
Irama and Victoria Stella Doritou attend the Etro fashion show during Milan Digital Fashion Week on July 15, 2020 in Milan, Italy. Photo by Alessandro Bremec/ NurPhoto via Getty Images

With both the global PPE shortage and the need for ordinary citizens to wear masks to run necessary errands; tailors as well as the crafting and fashion communities have been diligent in their efforts to produce masks towards stymieing the spread of the coronavirus. 

Sewing masks is now considered "an activity that can assist people self-isolating at home feel like they are helping to fight COVID-19." This is according to an article by The Conversation detailing how homemade masks are gaining popularity

In this article, it was also highlighted that "masks must be made to strict standards and patterns. These are widely disseminated, but craft groups are still flooded with suggestions from well-meaning people who want to make perceived 'improvements' to designs."

Function over fashion

Even small changes to mask design can render cloth masks useless. Additionally, fabric choice can also hamper the efficacy of these masks. A flame blowing test has been shared on social media, where people wearing cloth masks attempt to blow out a small flame to test whether their mask passes N95 specifications. 

This is by no means intended to alarm nor discourage you from wearing cloth face masks, as we saw our very own president demonstrated (with much comical flair) how to put one on in a recent address to the nation. Dr Zweli Mkhize has also endorsed their use, sharing tips on how to wear and care for them. 

So rather than just dismissing cloth masks as simply useless off the bat, try your own flame blowing test as a measure of your personal security and trust. But again, do take note of the fabric used. 

It is therefore imperative crafters and fashion designers follow specifications. The best homemade masks are reportedly made from fabric with a tight weave, and have a moisture impermeable layer and/or a pocket for a replaceable HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. A bandanna/scarf around your face won’t do the job. 

READ MORE: 21 AFI designers unite in face mask relief program for South Africans in need  

A microbiologist, Anna Davies, from the University of Cambridge says masks must be well-fitting over your mouth and nose. You can’t touch a mask while you’re wearing it, or pull it under your chin for a break. It must be changed as soon as it’s wet and disposed of or placed in the washing machine carefully. You must wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling it, as handling your mask with dirty hands exposes you to the virus. 

Alright, now that we've covered the 101s of N95s of mask wearing, there's another softly posed question about cloth masks - is it okay for them to be fashionable? 

Fashion, finances and feelings

Is it crass to still want to look cute while taking precautionary measures against contracting Covid-19? Personally, I say no - although I do wear a simple blue medical mask. But it seems some voices beg to differ. An article titled "What does your face mask say about you?" published in The Cut, speaks on how high fashion masks may be received the wrong way in the midst of a global crisis. 

"It can come across as flashy and inappropriate, especially when so many people — including medical professionals — lack personal protective equipment," the article posits. 

However, in the same breath, it argues for self-expression as an outlet at a time when we're all pretty much required to protect ourselves to prevent actual death, saying "a cute face mask can be one small (and safe) way to make a terrible situation slightly less terrible — to feel like an individual person, and not just a potential vector of disease." 

READ MORE: Japanese lingerie firm sells face masks made from bras after first batch made as a joke sold out

As I strongly agree, I'm also reminded of a voice note I received from a friend over the weekend; "You need to get us the juice on where to get fashionable face masks. I really think there's value in giving us a wide variety of places to get masks - I just want diversity of cool a*# masks," he said while also lamenting the current abundance of "animal and African print masks." 

To respond to the voice note, I'll note that there are options - locally and internationally.

Tshepo Jeans is selling denim masks at R150 for two, and they're highly coveted on social media. 

Inga Atelier also has trendy synthetic leather masks that will be available for order on 4 May 2020. These are priced at R199 for two. 

Cape Town based label Imprint ZA, is offering custom-made masks in a variation of their signature prints. 

Loin Cloth & Ashes adds to the list of local 'trend adjacent' masks. 

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Formation #LCAMasks #thatLCAgirl

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And for some eye candy, U.S designer Christian Siriano - who has been shipping colourful medical masks to healthcare workers - has also been playing around with couture masks in anticipation of a future where high fashion will be characterised by embellished masks. 

READ MORE: 25 times Christian Siriano proved it's possible to create red carpet showstoppers for all body types, yet some designers still choose not to

The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman might've frowned upon such a voice note as the one I received, given her critique of fashion labels capitalising on coronavirus masks, where she mentions a Vogue article heralding a list of "masks to shop now" as though they were the latest handbag trend to get in on. An example of this exploitation is how Virgil Abloh's Off-White label was under fire for selling masks at an aggressively inflated price.

Vanessa however empathises with the desire to still seek creative self-expression behind masks, although she expresses skepticism for brands. 

"The mask becomes the first signifier of the individual. And that means it will also become a sign of aspiration, achievement — and inequality," she writes. 

"Capitalist opportunities often emerge from times of trauma. This may be one of them. But that doesn’t make the origin story any less uncomfortable," Vanessa then contrasts. 

"Yet you can’t argue with the need for masks, or that many of the companies making them are doing so because there is little other option: No one is buying the clothes they make, and to create something — anything — for sale is to create a lifeline for employees and suppliers," is the final intersection provided by Vanessa Friedman where we as consumers must use our own discretion as to how we approach this sudden necessity. Why purchase 'fashionable' masks? 

To simply complete a well-put-together outfit? To aid the financial buoyancy of brands and their workers? Or do we purchase them in the name of the same mood economy that saw the sale of lipsticks thrive after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.? 

The last option speaks particularly to how many may be trying to find different forms of aesthetic pick-me-ups. And at a time when the features that are usually accentuated are now concealed, a mask that makes a statement is one way to still set yourself apart... both in sartorial taste and physical distance.  

What do you think? Is it superficial to want a trendy mask at a time like this? Tell us here.

Additional source: The Conversation

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