Surgical face masks, most an unsightly shade of blue, have become a daily necessity — and also a popular meme, doubling as a swimming pool for tiny human figurines, a disquieting flag for the pandemic, and a cringe-worthy mankini on comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
But when designers and fashion brands started creating face masks, they began mirroring an industry still firmly devoted to men’s and women’s departments.
“They started to fall back on gendered tropes, i.e., floral and pastel masks being specifically marketed to women, while the ones marketed to men drew on the language of Savile Row, the military or pseudo-science,” marveled Andrew Groves, a professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster in London. “We use this as a case study to show students how hard it is to change the realities of an industry that uses design to propagate ideals of gender roles and identities….It is incredible how even a small, seemingly unisex rectangle of fabric has become gendered and marketed differently for men or women.”
For example, Groves pointed to a herringbone face mask by Rowing Blazers, a camouflage model by Police, and a natty silk one in a necktie print from British shirtmaker Charles Tyrwhitt that doubles as a pocket square — all clearly marketed to men.
In Grove’s view, “it takes a very skilled designer to be able to create fashion in such a way that it focuses on addressing people’s specific needs from their clothing rather than just performing their gender identity.”
The university has been collecting samples of face masks designed during the coronavirus pandemic for its men’s wear archive and is planning an exhibition on the subject next year.
New York state’s “Mask Up” campaign, which involves more than two dozen designers, offers another sample group, with Prabal Gurung, Mara Hoffman, Tanya Taylor and Alice + Olivia among those offering floral or botanical prints.
“In general, I found that designers were creating masks for their customers as well as staying true to their brand identity,” said consultant Julie Gilhart, chief development officer for Tomorrow London Ltd., who spearheaded the project for Gov. Andrew Cuomo in partnership with his daughter Mariah Kennedy Cuomo and The RealReal. “In some cases, like Johnathan Cohen, it was very feminine, much like his brand. In the case of Public School’s mask, they wanted to design something that represented the power of the people coming together to fight for a common cause.”
In Gilhart’s view, “masks have their own identity, but my advice would be to consider them more genderless: The defining part is what one’s personal taste is attracted to.”
TIPPING POINT: Fashion Brands, Schools and Stores Navigate Shifting Gender Norms