Materialities: a virus and face masks

Written by Anneke Smelik   

Image: Duurzame Mode 025

The fashion and beauty industries are suffering financially from the corona crisis, but some clothing companies, including large fast fashion ones such as Zara (Spain) and H&M (Sweden), are converting to the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the form of face masks and protective gowns. Now that face masks are slowly entering the streets of European cities, there is the critical issue of accessibility: where to buy them and how to remain fashionable? DIY videos instruct people how to
make do with materials on hand, from fabric and sheets to bras and T-shirts. Volunteers make masks for hospitals and nursing homes, while private consumers have become producers at home.

Luxury brands like Armani, Gucci and Prada in Italy and LVMH in France (Dior, Fendi, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy) resort to making face masks for their respective governments, while luxury perfume makers such as Bvlgari and Guerlain have pledged to make hand sanitizers (Bramley 2020). Fashion brands and collaborations between industry and government become sources of local and national pride in times of crisis. To address aesthetic concerns many smaller fashion brands or designers are making fashionable face masks, including sequined, 3D printed and recyclable ones (Philipkoski 2020). In the Netherlands designer Sjaak Hullekes (Hulle Kes) and tech-fashion designer Melanie Brown (Bybrown) make fashionable face masks, while The Fashion Filter designs them together with the Technical University of Eindhoven. In the region Arnhem-Nijmegen the platform for sustainable fashion has developed a project with local designers to produce sustainable face masks: ‘FACE MASKS 025’.

In an earlier contribution to this blog I wrote about new materialism. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, materials and materialities come into stark relief. As the virus spreads globally from body to body, the importance of material protection, along with ‘social distancing’, becomes paramount. Initial material shortages of face masks, protective gowns, ventilators and testing swabs presented life-threatening conditions due to sheer demand as well as supply chain disruptions. By the end of April, many countries were recommending or demanding cloth face masks for everyone in public spaces, with the clarification that medical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.

The question whether ‘to mask or not to mask’ (Eikenberry et al. 2020) has become quite the topic of debate. There have been mixed and dramatically changing messages whether the general public should engage in mask-wearing. Cultural as well as material and medical factors had influenced some of the earlier advice for the public not to mask in Europe and the USA. In addition to concerns about material shortages and perceptions of a false sense of security, there had been concerns about stigmatization and discrimination (Tufekci et al. 2020). Unlike the invisible virus, the mask is highly visible and has not been customary in western cultures. Mask usage in public for health purposes is much more common in Asian countries, especially since the SARS outbreak in 2003. In China, mask-wearing
is a practice associated with modern material culture.

While there are benefits to individual wearers, depending on the particular material and fit issues associated with the mask, it is basically an act of generosity to others to don a cloth mask. Inasmuch as ‘western’ cultures have tended toward individualist rather than collectivist needs, compliance requires a transformation in meaning and thinking. As Austria began to mandate mask-wearing in public spaces such as grocery stores, for example, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz noted that it would be a ‘big adjustment’ as ‘masks are alien to our culture’ (Norimitsu 2020).

The pandemic reminds us that we are all material subjects (Smelik, 2018), dependent on fabrics, clothes, and other materials not only for protective, but also for aesthetic, cultural, and social reasons. When I donned a – very ordinary – face mask for the first time, I was struck how hot it was walking in the sun, how it itched behind my ears, and that my glasses got fogged up. As I realized that the highly visible face mask is a material object that protects me, us, from the material yet invisible Covid 19 virus, I felt acutely how our daily life is characterized by non-human actors invading as well as protecting our all-too-human (and hence vulnerable) bodies. We are material subjects made up of nonhuman and human components within the larger contexts of material culture, local circumstances and global circuits.

* This blog is based on a text that Susan Kaiser and I wrote together, “Materials and materialities: Viral and sheep-ish encounters with
fashion”. Editorial introduction to Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, vol 11 nr 1, in press June 2020.

References:

Bramley, Ellie Violet (2020), ‘Prada the latest brand to make medical face masks’, The Guardian, 24 March.

Eikenberry, Steffen E.; Mancuso, Marina; Iboi, Enahoro; Phan, Tin, Eikenberry, Keenan; Kuang, Yang; Kostelich, Eric; and Gumel, Abba B. (2020), ‘To mask or not to mask: Modeling the potential for face mask use by the general public to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic’: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.04.06.20055624

Onishi, Norimitsu, and Méhuet, Constant (2020), ‘Mask-wearing is a very new fashion in Paris (and a lot of other places)’, New York Times, 9 April.

Philipkoski, Kristen (2020), ‘30+ fashionbrands pivoting to make stylish coronavirus masks’, Forbes, 12 April.

Smelik, Anneke (2018), ‘New materialism: A theoretical framework for fashion in the age of technological innovation’, International Journal of Fashion Studies, 5(1), pp. 31-52.

Tufekci, Zeynep; Howard, Jeremy; and Greenhalgh, Trish (2020), ‘The real reason to wear a mask’, The Atlantic, 22 April.

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