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Of masks and masquerades in 2020 – from necessity to accessory?

Masks might seem strange, unusual, and new to the British fashionista but in many countries face coverings have been used for both hygiene and fashion long before the events of 2020 unfolded. When watching a YouTube video on the day of a Japanese Cosplayer I was struck by the young woman putting on a mask before leaving the house. Being asked why, she merely said that her make-up wasn’t finished yet and so she wanted to cover her face.

To be able to stay with family, I myself spent this pandemic in Germany where masks became mandatory in late April. At first the response overwhelmed the country. Free patterns were available online, elastic was sold out in all the shops and avid crafters made masks for friends, relatives, and neighbours. However the longer time went on, the less enthusiastic people were about masks. Despite them still being mandatory on public transport and in shops, the masks came off. Slowly they started slithering down people’s faces, first covering only their mouths, and now hanging under their chins. People take them off to eat or drink or sneeze inside train cabins and rip them off their faces as soon as they can. But officially masks are here to stay and now the UK too has made masks obligatory for public transport and shops.

Joining the avid crafters my sister and I made masks too. When I saw my friends suffer while I was in a different country and had no way to go to them, sending them a cloth mask became my way to tell them that I care. In digging through fabric scraps for their favourite colours, I had a chance to say all the things I wanted to say to them. It meant, I want people to see you and who you are even when your face is covered. It meant, I want you to be safe when I have no other ways of keeping you safe. It meant, I want you to remember me even when you haven’t seen me in months and it meant, I’m keeping you in my thoughts too. Masks became a form of love language when things felt uncertain.

Over the past months, many clothes brands also started producing masks from leftover fabrics, often before mask wearing became mandatory in July. With economic insecurity fashion brands producing luxury goods like silk lingerie switched to masks. The British lingerie company Harlow & Fox created seven different designs of silk and lace masks. Developments like this allowed customers to support their favourite small businesses even when they had to tighten their purse strings.

Yet, while this little bit of fabric has taken up an array of meanings and social functions in the past months, it has not yet become a true fashion accessory. Fashion generally has suffered this year. Without parties and dinners, or drinks and club nights we simply don’t have the audience to show off a look. But fashion production didn’t stop and in many places clothing stores have reopened. Pictures of long lines in front of fast fashion stores like Primark went around the world and a friend from London sent me a short video of a line in a luxury shopping area she titled ‘URGENT Louis Vuitton buys’. Clearly people want clothes and clearly people are willing to make an effort to get them, whether they are spending a lot of money on it or a little.

But fashion is not the same as clothes. On the streets people seem to wear what they already had; many appear to have gone to the back of their closets to find something that feels new. Even white skinny jeans appeared back on the streets just a few weeks after several fashion writers had published their love-letters and goodbyes to the body-clinging style. Luxury brands which would usually maintain the strong-hold for the impractical, ridiculous, and fashionable have focused their latest releases on commerciality. The 2020 resort collection Chanel has debuted online could not be playing safer. Navy, white and red for summer are as revolutionary as florals for spring. Their wide-legged trousers were cute, and I enjoyed the chain belts placed directly on naked skin. But in the end, not a piece in this collection was particularly new or exciting. Now, if a luxury fashion house with millions behind them doesn’t have the capacity for fashion this season, what will happen to the rest of us?

Even couture season, the place for fashion designers to make the impossible possible with the help of the best craftsmen in the world, disappointed. Not because the fashion wasn’t beautiful. With nods to the past and lots of glamour, Christian Dior, Ulyana Sergeenko, or Valentino invited the audience to dream simultaneously about an idealised past and an idealised future. Yet it seems that facemasks fit into neither fashion fantasy. Only Victor & Rolf’s couture show included a black cloth mask which a commentator with the optimistic tone and apocalyptic expectations of a 1940s war morale film narrator called “the smartest new accessory of the season”. However, the mask disappeared afterwards and even the models showing outerwear did not wear one during the rest of the show.

Masks might not be high fashion (yet) but that should not deter us from having fun with them. My mother might not be a fashion icon, nevertheless the matching of her cloth masks to her summer dresses and blouses perfectly fits the monochromatic, head to toe, matchy-matchy looks we know so well from social media. And even if protecting others isn’t the new black, being kind will always be in fashion.

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