How did the face mask - a symbol of Hong Kong's anti-extradition bill protest - become a fashion accessory?
No one seems to know exactly when the practice of wearing a surgical mask onto a crammed rush-hour train happened, but just look at any major East Asian city and you’ll spot several commuters sporting them.
Cut to 2019: cities around the world have begun to see a spike in air pollution, and as a result, face masks have increasingly become a necessity when stepping outside. At the same time, they have also become a symbol of resilience in political movements, such as in the case of the pro-democracy street activists in Hong Kong who use them to hide their faces from the CCTV cameras that monitor them like hawks from overhead poles.
The masks could be used to somewhat survive the effects of inhaling diesel-laden, foul air, or to prevent the spread of common airborne illnesses. If either is not a pressing concern, of course, one could simply use them as a fashion accessory.
In July of this year, supermodel Naomi Campbell posted her preflight routine on her delightful YouTube channel, confessing her deeply entrenched fear of people coughing and sneezing on aeroplanes. Lo and behold, a black face mask made an appearance.
Even if Campbell didn’t wear it on a runway, face masks have been headlining for a few years now. When the QIAODAN Yin Peng Sports Wear Collection debuted its respiratory masks at China Fashion Week in 2014, it made global news.
Chinese designer Masha Ma took them a step further. She embedded them with Swarovski crystals and presented them at Paris Fashion Week the same year. Things haven’t been the same ever since.
Featured on every “world’s most polluted cities” lists, India is a fertile market for the face mask market. Designer masks, created by India’s prominent designer Manish Arora in collaboration with one of the pioneering companies in the mask business, Vogmask, started appearing in the country around 2016.
Face masks are catching on in European cities like Barcelona, and in some American cities, too.
Campbell is hardly the only celebrity to come out of her mask wardrobe. When famous pop star Ariana Grande strolled the streets of New York with a chic, teardrop logo-embellished face mask earlier this year, it may or may not have been a clever marketing ploy.
Because soon enough, she started selling, Thank U, Next face masks, coinciding with the release of her album in February, 2019. (Earlier, Grande’s Santa Tell Me single in 2014 also influenced a similar face mask merchandise.)
With big ticket Hollywood pop stars and models alike increasingly being spotted in face masks, the trend, while gradually gaining broader acceptance, is being shaped by them at some level. Maria Ahnlund a Social Media Manager at Airinum AB, a mask producer based in Sweden, concurs.
“Today, it isn't only K-pop stars that seriously use masks as fashion items to disguise themselves”, she says. Big Sean was spotted with an Airinum mask in Dubai and at Coachella, Ahnlund points out.
The often-trending hashtag #pollutionmask is used by fashion influencers promoting face masks for the hundreds of companies operating in the mask-making space. “Celebrities, performers, opera singers and frequent travellers have been seen in masks to protect wellness [and voice], and this certainly makes masking normalised,” says Vogmask’s Wendover Brown, Partner and Founder at the mask-making company. Ever since Vogmask debuted with general-use masks in the market in 2012, it has seen a flurry of articles featuring its masks in major American publications in the past couple of years.
Nevertheless, beyond its fashion street cred, Brown considers factors, such as illnesses caused by environmental air pollution, to have contributed to their popularity. “In almost eight years, the benefit of mask use is becoming widely known for protecting respiratory health from an array of contaminants”, she adds. This has prompted a renewed interest in the masks, and the company has read the pulse of consumer curiosity in face masks to evolve its business. “For our business, growth in the use of our product has also resulted from social influencers in communities of chronic illness, migraine, pulmonary wellness, allergy, asthma and other sensitive lungs groups, as well as the recommendation of leading health providers.”
Unsurprisingly, the sustained interest in the face mask in popular culture has prompted companies to launch new product lines regularly. Airinum, in collaboration with Italian fashion brand NemeN, launched a new mask on September 2, 2019 that looks like it wouldn’t be out of place on a punk anarchist’s face.
Even as some retailers such as Taobao have placed restrictions on purchasing face masks in Hong Kong due to the ongoing pro-democracy protests in the city, Airinum and Vogmask masks are available to buy online. “Vogmask can be ordered online for fast shipping to Hong Kong. We are qualifying retail locations currently in Hong Kong for the upcoming fall season,” Brown says. Airinum’s products are available through offline/online retailers such as the WOAW store.
The evolution of face masks is far from complete, and the days of face masks being confined to East Asian cities are over. Now that everyone from social media influencers to pop stars are donning them, they can now officially be considered a global fashion accessory. Our faces may not be empty long enough to sustain their encroachment because big ticket international celebrities, K-pop superstars, fashion models on runways and Instagram fashion icons are working hard to promote their use globally.
Now that everyone from designers to social media influencers and musicians are wearing these protective accessories, the surgical mask has become a fashion statement