Face Masks & Fashion

COVID-19 has taken the world by storm. A prominent element that is putting people’s health at risk is the shortage of personal protective equipment. Medical equipment such as face masks and ventilators are essential in the fight against the virus, however, they are also scarce in availability. Infection Control Today conducted a survey among 260 American health care systems, which reported that 97% of the facilities have implemented protocols to reduce the use of personal protective equipment. In Toronto, in an attempt to conserve resouces, many hospital workers are told to use only one face mask per shift. Fortunately, numerous fashion companies are taking it upon themselves to begin production of face masks in an effort to lessen the shortage of supplies. The lack of supplies and the struggles involved with producing more personal protective equipment is indicative of the government’s lack of preparation for a crisis such as Covid-19. Dependency on offshore production in China is proving to be a problem during these tough times, as importation has slowed down significantly. 

When face masks were first created, their use was mostly medical. In China, from the time of the pneumonic plague until the end of the first world war, masks were commonly worn in everyday life. They represented civic awareness and allowed citizens to present themselves as scientifically minded. Once the SARS epidemic began, the civic duty reappeared in East and Southeast Asia. The fashion world noticed that masks brought fourth personal identities, and began to cultivate that individualism further. Masks are commonly worn in East Asian countries such as China and Hong Kong as an accessory rather than for medical purposes. In the last few years, popular brands such as Bathing Ape, Off-White, and Fendi have showcased designer face masks on their runway looks. Currently, face masks are a symbol of COVID-19, but as their use increases, it is possible that the mask will become an everyday accessory. It seems that more people are attempting to personalize their masks, and so it is reasonable to consider whether this trend will continue post COVID-19.

The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, was asked if President Donald Trump should invoke the Defense Production Act. This act would force companies in different industries to manufacture the much-needed supplies for Americans. Cuomo stated, “If I had a New York State Defense Production Act, I would use it. If you’re making clothing, figure out if you can make masks. I’ll fund it.” Fashion designer, Christian Soriano, rose to Cuomo’s call, responding via Twitter. “If @NYGovCuomo says we need masks my team will help make some. I have a full sewing team still on staff working from home that can help.” Siriano reopened his atelier as an essential business and created an assembly line producing approximately 2000 masks in their first week. Other companies have also risen to the challenge. Menswear brand, Brooks Brothers, has volunteered to utilize its factories to produce 150,000 face masks daily in America.

Face Masks & Fashion

In California, Kaisser Permanete, a healthcare company, has requested local manufacturers to help produce masks. Gap Inc., the clothing company, is aiding to connect their vendors, which have personal protective equipment, directly with Californian hospitals. The company is also in the process of manufacturing fabric masks. They are following the local health authority’s guidelines and are specific in stating their masks are not medical grade. Their intention is to create fabric masks for public citizens, thus increasing the availability of medical grade masks to front line workers. In Washington state, Nordstrom, one of the largest tailor employers in North America, has teamed up with a clothing manufacturer to repurpose surgical wrap into face masks. 

In the United Kingdom, high fashion brand Chanel is transforming its Ready-to-Wear atelier and Maisons d’art workshops into protective wear production studios for face masks and hospital gowns. Additionally, Chanel has donated 1.2 million euros to the public hospital systems for the Paris foundation emergency fund to support front line workers. Similarly, high fashion brand Burberry is also producing face masks and hospital gowns for the National Health Services in the United Kingdom. Burberry is also funding vaccine research at the University of Oxford. It is impressive to see how many companies are rising to action without government force, however, it is also a clear representation of how vulnerable the systems governing us are.

Face Masks & Fashion

Medical masks are created in a complex process with a synthetic fiber able to filter out small particles. Thus, protective masks cannot just be substituted with any other cloth material. Many manufacturers are unable to increase their production because they only have so many of the industrial machines that are essential to the process available for use. Protective masks are made using a melt-blown assembly line which is able to create a fine mesh filtration fabric of synthetic polymer. The melt-blown process is crucial to create a small enough fiber that allows for breathing while also preventing infectious particles from passing through the mask.  

Some American officials have advised the public to refrain from wearing masks in respect to the shortage of supplies for medical workers. Others have suggested that they are a worthwhile precaution. Regardless, many celebrities, such as Bella Hadid and Gwent Paltrow, have been seen sporting protective face gear on their social media. Celebrities are not front line workers, and by broadcasting their use of face masks they are endorsing the use of protective equipment for average citizens. Some fashion designers have accessorized their masks in an attempt to add creativity and joy during these tough times. Celebrities endorsing the mask as an accessory coupled with the increasingly stylish protective equipment being produced is allowing the face mask to transition further towards becoming an everyday accessory. 

Overall, many companies are collating together in support of public health and front line workers. People around the world are both wearing masks to fulfill their civic duty and making masks to combat the shortage of them as well as for protection of themselves and the people around them. Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking that many government systems are not interjecting themselves by asking more clothing manufactures, who have the facilities to produce more protective equipment, to do so. It was overdue when the President of the U.S. finally invoked the Defence Production Actasking General Motors Company to produce of ventilators. In Canada, Piminister Justin Trudeau has stated that there was no need to asking manufactures to produce protective equipment, as many companies are voluntarily stepping up and getting the job done. However, Canada is still experiencing shortages of protective equipment such as masks and hospital gowns. It is troubling to see the lack of effort by major governments, such as in Canada, during this pandemic to utilize the industries already in their countries to increase the production of essential equipment. Seeing as how clothing companies have the resources to make masks, it’s no surprise that the brands are stepping up to do their part.


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