Illustration by Saffron Sener 

Saffron Sener
11 November 2020

I remember during my sophomore year when the air turned to poison and the sun became an angry, smoky flame in the sky. Fires burned across California, throwing smoke and ash and soot into the atmosphere, pooling in the Bay Area. The AQI reached 246, and U.C. Berkeley hesitated to cancel classes; I read on Twitter that walking to campus was the equivalent of smoking eleven packs of cigarettes. If I’m gonna lose the lung capacity, I’d rather be doing that— at least I’d look cooler than I do sweating on the 79. Then, the notion of wearing face masks to protect your lungs from the ash and soot was thrown out on social media, by the university, by the local news. Even though I’m asthmatic, I refused to don one. I thought they were an overreaction. Growing up in a Southern California town built on a chaparral, which sparked up every year and treks to school in the smoke were an accepted October/November routine, I’d never thought before to wear a mask. The smoke would blow out in a few days, and my youth would certainly combat any long-standing damage caused by the smoke inhalation.

Now, two years later, I don’t leave the house without a mask. The idea of doing so feels strange, dangerous. I’m still in Berkeley, so my mask is my shield against both virus and smoke. I yearn to regain the relationship with air and the outside I had before COVID-19 took over the world, and fires once again took over California— no fear that what I breathed and took into my lungs may severely affect my health.

Though in Fall of 2018 I damned the N-95 as an unwearable detriment to any outfit, I have now embraced the fashionable possibility of the face mask. I currently own five; one earthy tie-dye, one rainbow cat pattern, one floral, one grey gingham, and one all grey. I used to wear lipstick every day, without fail— it was the last touch to my outfit and face that I wasn’t myself without. Masks have taken that spot.

The reusable mask did not enter the fashion scene without controversy, though. The very first reusable mask I encountered was Fashion Brand Company’s scrap material mask included free with orders from their website, released on March 16th. The Instagram post launching the mask received 570 comments. Users’ reactions ranged from “love it!” to “big yikes” to even, “this is capitalizing on a pandemic that is costing people their jobs…you’re not being artistic, you’re just fishing for cheap attention.” In the months since, the feelings towards reusable, non-medical grade face masks have obviously shifted, and now FBC has thirteen masks to choose from on their website. If you click the profiles of those who condemned likely the first “fashion” mask they saw on the market, you’ll see masked selfies and outings. Some have even changed profile photos to include their masked face, which feels somewhat ironic alongside their comments saying “cringe” on FBC’s photo.

A scroll through most any clothing companies’ website (Gap, Urban Outfitters, etc.) yields newly instated “masks” sections with a wide variety of patterns, colors, styles. They are available in multi-packs at Target and the like; what was once lauded on my Instagram feed as “too soon” has now become commonplace. Etsy, an online marketplace, is overcome by face masks— they are easy to handmake, easy to experiment with, and easy to sell cheaply and in bulk even by one-person small businesses.

This did not happen outside the eye of the fashion community, either. Vogue recently published an article titled, “Cloth Masks to Buy Now”, which listed one hundred acceptably “stylish” reusable/cloth masks. The most expensive on the list topped $141, available off FarFetch, a luxury fashion retail platform. Funnily enough, one of the cheapest masks, at $13, was from Etsy. Harmony Mask Boutique sells this $13 mask and based on the masks’ pricing and Etsy’s reports that the shop has made 3,124 sales, its owner has probably turned a profit of a little over $40,000 since opening earlier in 2020. A large sum, no doubt. FarFetch’s CEO, José Neves, on the other hand, had a net worth of $1.4 billion in September of 2018.

Paris Fashion Week 2020, which took place from September 28th to October 6th, made use of the accessory; designers and brands like Bora Aksu, Rebecca Minkoff, and Chromat featured models adorned with face masks walking their runway. On the whole, though, these masks were useless beyond their aesthetic value; made of mesh or lace, they serve essentially no purpose in protecting against the spread of COVID-19, almost poking fun at the necessity face coverings have become in these past months. Furthering the spectacle was Christian Siriano, an American designer who in September held a private runway show of his Spring 2021 collection at his home. Perhaps the most recognizable piece from this event was his black-and-white dress, hat, and mask set, all printed with the word “vote” in full capitals, seemingly screaming off the fabric. In so many ways, this feels empty— not only would this Siriano ensemble cost $5,130, or more than four times the $1200 (some) Americans received as their stimulus check so many months ago, but for many of us in this country, voting feels like an act with no real power. In trying to make a rebellious statement about this country’s condition, Siriano instead recreated so much of what is wrong with it; consumption in a way only accessible by the rich of items, necessary to the masses, but perverted and made into a novelty, by the rich. I’m talking about voting as much as I’m talking about masks.

I remember when face masks became expected of someone when they went into public space. Yet, they were nowhere to be found. They were not yet in Target, not yet overwhelming Etsy’s market; the arguments over their effectiveness had just begun. My family struggled to find even the disposable masks. I remember wondering why, unlike so many other countries, masks weren’t being handed by our government in bulk. I mean, I didn’t have to wonder too long— I live in the United States, after all. I learned in September that the USPS did plan to distribute 650 million masks across the country, or around five to every household, but this was squashed by the White House for fears that it would raise panic about the seriousness of COVID-19. Oh, how those words make me want to lose my mind.

Masks weren’t in stores, masks weren’t in the mail, masks were bought up online by those who planned to resale them at extreme markups— what were we to do? Well, my best friend all through my childhood and teenage years began sewing them for those around her. She sent me a space-pattern mask in the mail, and it was the first reusable mask I had. My Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok feeds grew full of videos people shared of them DIY-ing masks from bandanas, bits of scrap fabric, hair-ties, and scrunchies. There was even a segment on the local news about how to make a mask with materials already available in your home. The reusable mask became this communal item, its process of creation and product itself being passed around by the people. In this country, our government not only failed to provide masks, but actively refused to, often opting for the criminalization of not wearing masks rather than actually giving someone a mask who doesn’t have one. Thus, it is easy to feel that the reusable mask, for a mere moment in our quarantine time between the beginning of lockdown and the appearance of masks in mainstream stores like Target, was this cooperative thing. A symbol of DIY, of care for those around you, of a passed around set of instructions to create this handmade thing.

Perhaps I am so drawn to this moment because this notion of handmade community is appealing to me. I could feel the kindness sewn into the mask my friend gifted me, and when I wore my bandana and hair-tie mask, I felt connected to those on my social media feed who taught me how to make it. There is so much more care and intention in those masks, and even in the instruction of how to make one, than the plastic baggie of cheap cloth strips available at most every chain store now. Etsy feels like the midpoint between these two extremes, of scrounged-together, handsewn face covers and their mass-produced counterparts; because the website is so dominated by each shop’s face mask listings, it feels distant from being crafted or handmade. But it isn’t, for the most part— you’re looking at thousands of handcrafted masks, made by thousands of individual small online shops. Yes, they are identifying a need and turning a profit from it like Target, but at least that profit is feeding some family somewhere, not lining the pockets of a CEO.

Although I much prefer a reality wherein our government actively provides for its people during a pandemic in every way necessary— we are not living that reality. And for a moment, in the place of that ideal government, so many of us provided for each other. We made masks for our friends, neighbors. Strangers shared with other strangers mask-making instructions. There was almost a sense of community. It was fleeting, and it was quick, and in little ways, it still persists, but it was there.