A couple of months ago we were dreaming of moving on from our bulky winter coats to light and breezy spring pieces. This now feels like a distant memory. We didn’t see a pandemic of this magnitude coming, and we didn’t expect it to change our daily lives and future plans so drastically. Our colorful spring pieces remain in the closet as we rotate through the same pajamas and sweatpants for online classes and work-from-home shifts.
If one piece of clothing or accessory has been in the spotlight over past weeks, it’s the face mask. Wearing a face mask as a fashion statement is not unique to the COVID-19 outbreak. From the 18-year-old pop star Billie Eilish wearing a Gucci face mask at the 2020 Grammy awards to Japanese and Korean street fashion, face masks are not a new accessory. In fact, face masks are extremely common in Asian countries. However, in the United States, face masks are becoming a necessity.
Starting today (Friday, May 1) Illinois residents are required to wear a face mask in public spaces where a six-foot distance cannot be maintained, and this includes inside stores. This comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its recommendation in April to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by asymptomatic carriers.
“There are a few types of face masks starting from regular face masks that we see on a daily basis to advanced face masks such as N95 and duckbill, which are usually used in hospitals,” said Rashed Al Mogren, a respiratory therapist at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. “The regular face mask protects others, not you, from passing the disease to them if you carry it.”
Wearing a face mask does not ensure our protection against COVID-19, but if everyone you encounter on your supermarket visit is also wearing one, then you are mutually protecting each other.
“The more advanced face masks like N95 have been proven to protect you from getting the virus. These face masks have small holes with filters that make it harder for the virus to enter your body,” Al Mogren said. This is the type of mask he wears when treating COVID-19 patients. Typical residents are recommended to leave those masks for health care workers who are constantly being exposed to the virus.
As the demand for face masks increases, some have begun to approach the new accessory with creative ideas. Lauren Pingad, a DePaul University business management student, started her online face mask company, Fashionmasks, right after DePaul University switched to online classes. The idea behind starting a face mask business didn’t come out of nowhere, “My whole family has an artistic background,” said Pingad in an email. “Before coming to the States from South Korea, my grandmother was a fashion designer. My mother got her fashion degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I was able to get their artistic genes as well.”
“News started to pop up that the number of cases were increasing and the grocery stores that my grandma and her friends go to have had their employees showing positive for the virus,” said Pingad. While those infected took the recommended precautions of self-isolation, it still meant that the virus was already in the neighborhood. “It was definitely time to do something.”
Fashionmasks currently offers masks with over 20 different patterns to choose from and five different sizes ranging from child small to adult large. People from all over the country have bought the masks, according to Pingad. So far, a Mickey Mouse pattern called “mouse,” floral patterns called “spring” and “paint splatter” have been the most popular designs.
Pingad isn’t the only person making masks for others. Multiple Chicagoans have also jumped to the task, including local businesses like Rogers Park’s Le Piano Jazz bar, staff at the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago Upholstery and Drapery Co., among others. This is done not only as a way to help the community, but also to keep the businesses open and their workers employed during this difficult time.
Our New Normal
For Erika Knowles, a communication and media studies student at DePaul University, this past Easter Sunday was a very different one. With a stay-at-home order in place, her family had to find a way to commemorate the holiday.
“On holidays we tend to go on hikes or walks together as a family with our dog,” Knowles said. “This past Easter Sunday we went for a walk through my hometown of Naperville, Illinois, wearing our masks.” The masks Knowles is referring to are matching purple floral face masks her mother made for her entire family, her dog included.
“While wearing them we did have a laugh because of how awkward we felt walking past other people, most of whom were not even wearing masks,” she said.
Since local shops were running out of face masks, her mother, who is a sewing teacher for the local high school, decided to take some leftover fabric and create her own reusable masks. “Other than that sense of awkwardness, we all had fun walking around town grasping the sense of family the masks showcased to others walking around us,” said Knowles.
As face masks become this season’s hottest (and most necessary) accessory they also may represent a new era, one that outlasts the COVID-19 health crisis. “I personally expect people to use face masks for the next coming-up years,” Al Mogren said. Whether we use them as a way to protect ourselves and others during the COVID-19 outbreak or after as a courtesy when battling a common cold it is important to become familiarized with the face mask.
“During this troubling time, I think it is important for us to find joy and hope in even the simplest items such as masks,” Knowles said. “I encourage those who can to have fun and get creative with masks as it is important for everyone to both take this pandemic seriously while, at the same time, keeping the mask trend going through sparking their creative side and making these masks to show the world that they are not afraid.”
Face masks have already been worn on a daily basis by some, and now amid the COVID-19 health crisis, more people will turn to the accessory to prevent spreading the virus. Since face masks hide half of our faces — and in turn part of our identity — maybe face mask fashion will serve as a new way for us to express ourselves.
Header image courtesy of Erika Knowles