Ruffled collars, puffed sleeves and … face masks? Yup, it’s Fashion Week, and amid the hustle and bustle of runway shows and street style, overshadowing news that Raf Simons will join Miuccia Prada as co-creative director of her eponymous brand or that Kanye West held a surprise Sunday service at Paris Fashion Week, there’s one word that’s been on the tips of everyone’s tongues: coronavirus.
At Milan Fashion Week, in light of the emergence of several cases in Italy — especially in the Lombardy region, of which Milan is the capital — Michael Kors and the National Chamber of Italian Fashion had to cancel their events, and Giorgio Armani canceled his show last-minute, opting instead to livestream it. Others, though, like Hugo Boss and Dolce & Gabbana forged ahead. In Paris, Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri made a statement in reference to the virus in the show notes, and Dries Van Noten’s show offered free face masks to attendees outside its entrance in addition to providing hand sanitizer inside the show, while several other designers canceled their shows altogether.
However, in the midst of all this fear and anxiety (not to mention the ominous threat of an estimated $43 billion loss of revenue as Chinese customers remain at home), the face mask has emerged as an unlikely fashion statement. On Instagram, celebrities like Bella Hadid, Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow have posted face mask selfies on airplanes en route to Paris (predictably, Paltrow’s mask costs around $100 and is currently sold out), and face masks can be spotted in front rows and as attendees pose for photos outside of shows.
Face masks have also made it onto the runway itself. At the Marine Serre show in Paris (which was designed before news of the outbreak came out, with the masks intended for “anti-pollution” usage), models could be seen in sophisticated plaid and floral ones. There were also rather less conventional full-coverage knit pieces and veil-like garments that encased the entire head. In an interview with Vogue, Serre said that she wanted her garments to feel “both feminine and tough and protected at the same time,” a sentiment that has since taken on a new, more portentous meaning.
As a fashion item, though, face masks are no new thing. In Europe, doctors once believed that illness was caused by “bad air,” donning strange, bird-like, beaky facial accoutrements to protect themselves. While we associate these with the Black Plague, they were actually invented in the 16th, not 14th century, by Louis XIII’s chief physician. Part of what was perhaps the world’s first hazmat suit, these masks contained dried flowers and herbs in the beak, meant to further keep out “miasma.” Today, however, what was once used seriously is now worn as a costume at the Carnival of Venice and associated with commedia dell’arte.
Outside of their anti-epidemic usage, masks have played an important cultural function in rituals and ceremonies. They might aid the wearer in connecting with both divine and animal worlds, providing a liminality between the human and non-human, and suspend temporarily the norms of everyday behavior and social convention.
Surgical masks as we now recognize them emerged at the turn of the 20th century. In a historical anthropological study of the 1910-1911 Manchurian plague, researcher Christos Lynteris states that face masks associated with illness are “potent symbols of existential risk.” More than simply offering protection from sickness, they allowed wearers to perform “medical reason and hygienic modernity,” showing the triumph of man over mortality, our emergence from a dim, shadowy past of ignorance and illness.
Both on the runway and on Instagram, usage of the mask is undoubtedly performative. But it’s worthwhile considering what exactly that performance says. In the caption of her post, Paltrow made a joking reference to her film Contagion — “I’ve already been in this movie” — followed by an advisory to “stay safe” and “wash hands frequently,” resulting in sort of Insta-equivalent of nervous laughter. Kate Hudson wrote, “Travel. 2020.” Bella Hadid, disconcertingly enough, had no caption at all.
Though celebrities were criticized by experts who say face masks don’t actually do much and that promoting hand washing would be far more effective, these posts serve as telling encapsulations of our current global mood of anxiety and ambivalence. Face masks no longer suggest the conquest of reason but rather our humbling mortality even in the face of great human medical and technological achievement, a kind of memento mori. Moreover, it seems that in an era where anything serious is liable to become a meme, all we can really do is laugh nervously.
Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.