For the past two years, health and wellbeing has been at the forefront of people’s minds in a way most of us have never experienced. The ongoing global coronavirus pandemic is frightening, frustrating, and heart-breaking, with people losing their businesses, their families and their hope at a life without restrictions.
It was also unexpected. With each wave of infection, hospitals everywhere quickly became overwhelmed with patients, and personal protective equipment (PPE) became a sought-after commodity. Suddenly, clothing was no longer just about fashion, it was about life or death.
In March of 2020, a shortage of PPE was caused by rising demand, panic buying, and hoarding. The World Health Organisation urged governments and industries to increase production of PPE by 40%, but with such a huge demand and the importation of garments becoming increasingly difficult, another solution was needed.
Fashion to the rescue
Due to the shutdown of stores and cancelation of fashion shows, the clothing industry turned their production towards PPE. In just three weeks, Prada made 80,000 medical overalls and 110,000 masks.
In London, three designers united to form the Emergency Designer Network, utilising skilled sewers, unused machinery, and fabric donations to provide a ‘small-scale yet significant difference’ to the PPE shortage. The fashion industry became a lifeline in a time when hospitals desperately needed one.
The general public were then mandated to wear masks when around other people, and another section of society demanded PPE as stocks dwindled. The fashion industry alone could not keep up. Additionally, the sheer volume of masks and other PPE being used and disposed of instigated questions of environmental health. This is where cloth masks came into play.
The new mask era
Small businesses and home crafters where able to join larger manufacturers in providing people with PPE that was not only effective, but personalised, reusable, and desirable. Every colour, shape and pattern of mask was produced, in every material that was deemed safe enough.
In wearing these masks, the public saw an opportunity to express themselves in a way they hadn’t before, and make a positive impact on the environment whilst doing so. People were beginning to accept PPE as not only a necessity, but an accessory.
Before long, another difficulty with masks was raised: their accessibility. Those who rely on facial expressions and lipreading as part of communication, such as autistic, Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, found themselves debilitated. In response, Helloface made the UK’s first 100% transparent, reusable and recyclable facemask, and the UK Government in September 2020 sent out 250,000 clear face masks to the NHS frontline and social care workers.
Religious garments also prevented people from wearing masks with ease. Muslim women found it difficult to wear a mask over their Hijab, since they typically came without pins or buttons, and for those working on the front line this became a problem. Model Halima Aden came up with a solution, and with the help of a tech company and Allure magazine, sold mask and Hijab sets in multiple colours and breathable fabric. This use of fashion allowed more people to look after themselves, whilst they looked after everyone else.
The demands for specific PPE were met with a swift supply, demonstrating the innovation of those involved with fashion, and how they have been able to rapidly adapt to a new situation. The fashion industry has married style with practicality and pivoted their production towards health preservation. But, is it here to stay?
Has the customisation of PPE gone too far?
Award-winning designer Christian Siriano, like many others, decided early on in the pandemic that his talents should be focused on providing PPE for those who needed it. Whilst the demand has decreased with easing of restrictions, a plethora of masks still remain available to buy on his website; An accessory for the modern era. This is the same story for multiple fashion houses, such as Mulberry, Burberry, and Fendi, the latter of which is selling their embroidered mask for a whopping £430.
Catwalks and red carpets have been the place for these high-end masks over the past year, with custom designs being made to match outfits. Several celebrities appeared at the 2021 Grammys with custom masks, including Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, and Taylor Swift. These masks were not just for function, but made a fashion statement too.
YouTube star and late-night talk show host Lilly Singh went a step further and used her PPE to make a political statement. She arrived at the Grammys with a mask saying "I stand with farmers", in reference to Indian farmers’ protests over new government rules. This shift from customisation to politicisation of fashion is one we see all the time, but is it a negative distraction from the true purpose of the mask? Some may argue that something designed to protect someone’s health should not be ideological propaganda or glamorised at all.
One thing we can all agree on is that the coronavirus pandemic has been a series of trials and tribulations, but fashion has played an understated yet vital part in coping with it. From providing PPE to the front line, to selling customisable masks to the public, the fashion industry has embraced the need for clothing that protects our health, and turning it into a visually stimulating accessory. It has taken something scary and made it beautiful.