Fashion History: Masks in mainstream culture

We speak to Textiles historian, Marion Parker about pandemic fashion through history and masks as a fashionable necessity.

a couple wearing face masks

'Necessity is the mother of invention' or so goes the proverb, which has influenced everything from the way we think to the way we dress.  

In 2020, the necessity to survive and operate as best we can during the pandemic has invented the must-have item for COVID times: the mask.  

a couple wearing face masks

Less an accessory and more a vital essential we literally can’t live without, mainstream mask-wearing might be a new concept to Western fashionistas, but in the East it has been a mainstay for decades, following devastating pandemics like the Asian Flu in the late 1950s. 

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a visually engaging and technically beautiful way to express the personality of the wearer - like the cult cool of women found in Japan’s Harajuku district. So pervasive was their unique style, it infiltrated mainstream pop through A-List names like Katy Perry , Ariana Grande and  Billie Eilish  long before COVID was a reality.  

According to  textiles historian  Marion Parker, now that masks have entered the mainstream with both disposable and designer options, they won’t be going away anytime soon. “I think they’re with us for the long term,” she said.  

“I think it will probably change our mindset to something a little more similar to the Chinese and the Japanese where if you have a cold, it’s inconsiderate not to wear a mask … It’s less about individual convenience.”  

Yet with the increase in masks on a global level comes potential lasting environmental issues as well, according to Parker. “One of the major problems, of course, is modern fibres are actually just a spun form of plastic,” she said.  

“Polyester and polychloroethene are exactly the same type of clothing as milk bottles: you know, that whole echo fleece movement where they turn X number of soft drink bottles into a polo fleece. There’s no part of that process that is environmentally friendly; it’s the reused process.  

Masks in particular – because they’re made of highly synthetic fabrics – the disposing and the creation of them is actually quite a problem for the environment.” 

“When you see people choosing to make their own, that’s when you can use really beautiful natural fibres – cottons and linens and silks.”  

The internet has been inundated with videos about how to make your own masks, with DIY tutorials using repurposed clothing, not to mention indie businesses that have sprung up offering customisable versions. However, the hands-on approach is a little harder than you think.  

“Having them right up against your mouth and nose, you’re literally breathing in everything that it’s coloured with and processed with,” said Parker, who has spent decades studying modern and historic dressmaking in her role as both a textiles historian and costume conservator. 

"With contemporary fabrics, there’s such an array of fire retardants and sizing agents, and so many different types of fabric processing - there’s a whole world I just can’t possibly get my head around. But really the only way to get rid of all that process is to grow your own.” 

Although, this ultimate DIY strategy is inaccessible and time consuming to most - with 23 yards (about 20 metres) of grown flax required to generate enough material to make one shirt.  

The mechanisms of fashion in the current pandemic did create a fascinating “rabbit hole” for Parker to travel down initially, as she turned to history to learn how global events had impacted clothing previously.  Face coverings – in comparison to past historic pandemics – are really quite mild in relation to the extremes required during smallpox outbreaks and the Spanish Flu.

“When face masks came in, I wondered can I get away with a medieval wimple?” Parker laughed. “Or, like, a Victorian hat and veil? Over history women would get a loose covering to hang over your face. People did it and it was totally acceptable, partially because of the history of diseases like smallpox that would disfigure your face.”  

Black and white sketch of a wimple headdress worn by women in medieval times

One of the biggest shifts, according to Parker, was not so much the garments people wore to survive previous pandemics but how they were laundered. “People always boiled their linen under high heat and I always wondered why?” she said. 

“But it was actually one of the main ways of getting things sterilised when there were massive typhoid plagues through London and they didn’t have access to much sunlight.” 

"There’s stories of diseases running rampant through clothing that could not be washed or boiled, things that were sent out into the poor Peace Workers’ houses...and they actually took diseases with them in the cloth.”  

illustration of the plague masks worn by doctors in Europe in the 17th Century

From  Coco Chanel working with jersey  due to it being the only fabric accessible with World War II rations, to the rise of Gingham in America for similar reasons, global events have impacted the way we dress for as long as human beings have worn clothes. Yet for experts like Parker, that’s what can be the most fascinating of all. “I’m good with the past, don’t ask me about the present and the future,” she said.  

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