Masks Are Evolution

We are starting to accept, perhaps begrudgingly that COVID19 is changing our world. Today authorities the world over are searching for clinical grade masks to protect healthcare workers. Individuals are sewing masks or hacking scarves into service with two hair ties and a few clever folds. A high end shopping mall in Moscow is providing workers with clear masks that serve to protect while at least according to some eyes, remaining stylish. Suddenly we are erupting all over the world with masks of every color and shape, every style we never thought to imagine.

Photo by Pavel Anoshin on Unsplash

Fashion is considered a rather vapid obsession, and yet the way we dress has always had deep implications. Fashion is a way of establishing power and self expression as well as a way of protecting against the elements. Clothing is the way we “fashion” ourselves into creatures of culture. Clothing and accessories function as tools in society and the novel coronavirus is giving us a new level of insight into these truths. COVID fashion may have initially centered around comfy work-at-home clothing, but it is now tied mostly to the face mask, a complicated accessory if ever there was one.

The face mask is an old and compelling object, one that carries on traditions of tribes and face painting. Warriors and shamans, participants in rights of passage for millennia knew the power of altering the face for ceremony. As fabric became more plentiful, textiles were used to protect against everything from insects to sandstorms. Those uses fell away for many of us as conscious connections, but remained in the guise of “makeup” or in religious traditions. In fact, the politics around the face and who gets to define their own through cosmetics or by covering have actually been points of tension over the last decade. Still, nobody could have seen this mask evolution coming for us, or could they?

Throughout areas besieged by pollution the covering of our bodies and our faces has become more prominent with full body bathing suits and face masks existing as a new norm. Activists too, have reverted to using more face coverings when confronting facial recognition technology and a rise in authoritarianism. Hacks have been offered for several years now by artists and techies. Of course, those facial recognition hacks pale in comparison to state sponsored tracking of smart phones, which most of us carry constantly.

The stark reality is that the biological system that COVID19 represents is at odds with our growing technosphere. The COVID story does possess if not a “silver lining” for our society, then a catalyzing quality, one that puts the majority into the space where a variety of minorities have been existing for quite some time. No innovation comes without a need, and the need right now is to protect ourselves from a virus that is emblematic of a world out of balance. From this imbalance comes a whole new phase of public masking, one that will blur the older lines between religions, cultures and the mechanics of fashion. It will be interesting to be part of this time and to explore the tension between mandates of utility and the personal power of the individual.

Fashion shows who we belong to and how we identify. Now with the age of the mask fully upon us, it may put on display how easily we adapt to necessity. The age of the mask may also remind the majority of us that the right to self determine, to live our fashion lives un-policed was something most of us took for granted while others suffered. Where does your mask come from and how was it made? Who can see behind it and who determines when you get to take it off? Is coordinating your mask to your shoes necessary? Will you buy designer or cheap fast fashion? Will your mask decompose well or will it add to landfill? The politics of fashion are about to get interesting and they, like us will never be exactly the same as before this year.

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If you’re interested in this topic from a lighter perspective, stay tuned: another installment of Incineration Nation is coming soon.