Surgical masks dominated front rows this week—why I'm not wearing fashion's new favorite accessory.
On March 2, the EU increased the risk of coronavirus infection in Europe from moderate to high. At Paris Fashion Week, the mood amongst the fashion crowd—already highly strung on a good day—was fearful and chaotic. “You shouldn’t sit people so close together, especially with things like coronavirus going around,” an editor scolded a publicist at the Marine Serre show a few days earlier, as I coughed away next to her due to some minor throat irritation. I couldn’t tell whether she was taking a backhanded jab at me for coughing (I’m Asian), or if she was simply being cheeky. A few minutes later, Serre sent face masks down her runway, as she has done in previous seasons, but these ones—encrusted with rhinestones or paired with matching blazers—took on new meaning. “You always need it [whether] that is for the coronavirus, or for the pollution when you bike in Paris,” Serre told a group of journalists after the show. “Nothing changed there.” Throughout the week, buyers left early, editors supposedly canceled their trips, and face masks were prevalent both off the runway and on it.
Surgical face masks may not be an everyday sight in Europe and the United States, but in Asia, they’ve been a common accessory since the outbreak of the Spanish Flu in 1918. People around the world wore masks in an attempt to thwart the disease, and that’s when they started becoming more commonplace in Asia, particularly in Japan and China. When the Kansai Earthquake hit Japan in 1923, and smoke and dust filled the air, the masks became ubiquitous, functioning as an ideal shield against the microscopic irritants. The trend mostly died after World War II, but lived on in Japan and China, wrote medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris in a recent New York Times op-ed: “Masks are also a marker of medical modernity, as well as a signal of mutual assurance that allows a society to keep functioning during an epidemic.” In more recent years, SARS, air pollution, and the common cold have caused people to throw on masks throughout Asia, most commonly in China, Japan, and South Korea.
I noticed how common face masks were when I lived in Hong Kong around a decade ago, not long after the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. “In Hong Kong, people wear surgical masks quite frequently. Sometimes it’s because they’re sick and they don’t want to spread their germs, sometimes it’s because they don’t want to inhale the city’s disgusting polluted air, sometimes it’s because they work with food and in that case, it probably goes both ways—they don’t want to breathe in all that food cooking and they don’t want to contaminate it,” I wrote in a blog post, before observing that most fast food restaurant workers around the world wear them. “An odd sight for an American, but completely normal for [people in Hong Kong]. Now one thing I’m wondering is, were surgical masks common before the SARS outbreak, or did they become common after?” Years later, masks would become an inconspicuous disguise for the Hong Kong protesters who wish to remain anonymous.
Once I started traveling frequently for work years later, I would pick up packs of surgical masks each time I went to Asia. I discovered they came in handy while on the road, first because I had a layover in Tokyo and a bad case of bronchitis. I picked up a pack at the pharmacy in Narita before heading to Singapore. The barrier between my bronchitis and fellow passengers brought some relief to me—and probably to them as well—despite the sometimes violent, nonstop, chesty coughs. I would come to use them as a shield from a number of things—body odor from my neighbor on a tight economy class flight to Moscow, dust in the souks of Marrakech, the stench from a van packed full of passengers on the picturesque island of Palawan in the Philippines, and most recently on a flight from Delhi to New York, after seeing more people wearing them in the airport than usual. Now I have an ample stash at home, and with one on I feel protected, even after breathing in my own stale, recycled breath for hours on end.
With the global outbreak of the coronavirus that started in Wuhan, China at the height of the Chinese New Year, the surgical mask has not only turned into the weapon of choice—along with antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer—but today’s most coveted accessory. They’ve sold out in cities like New York, and Tacoma, Washington, states like Colorado, and even on Amazon. People are scared. People are hysterical. People will do anything to shield themselves from coronavirus, even if it means scrambling for masks that, according to conflicting reports, may or may not protect you.
The day after the Marine Serre show, men in suits wearing face masks passed them out to guests at the Dries Van Noten show, where a number of attendees wore them in the front row. The next night guests at Off-White—which has also offered face masks as fashion accessories in past seasons—wore the masks front row. I wondered why Virgil Abloh didn’t think to pass them out—what an Instagram coup that would be!—and what the actual odds are of catching coronavirus at an Off-White show. LVMH canceled the cocktail to fete its LVMH Prize that same evening. Two days later, on Saturday morning, a publicist begged me to go to the showroom she was working after a number of editors dropped out. Whether it was due to a late night out, the rainy weather, or the coronavirus was undetermined, but something was different. I arrived at CDG airport a few hours later for my flight back to New York, but not before an airline attendant asked me if I had been in Milan before Paris. Thank god, I hadn’t, so I wasn’t subjected to additional screenings. I noticed more white people, and more airport employees, had them on than usual, but for some reason, I didn’t feel pressed to wear one. The next day, Paris closed the Louvre in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Who knows if it was a dumb idea, but I chose not to wear one on the flight home. I did wipe down my seat, tray, screen, and surrounding areas with an antibacterial wipe. At the moment, the global death toll from coronavirus stands at over 3,000. The World Health Organization released a list of face mask tips: Healthy people only need to wear one “if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.” If you are coughing or sneezing, you should definitely wear one. US surgeon general Jerome M. Adams warned the public in a Tweet: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
With 90 reported cases in the United States, and just two in New York City, where I live, my odds of actually catching the coronavirus are quite low, and my odds from dying of it are even lower. For brands like Off-White and Marine Serre, which both have a large segment of Asian buyers, masks will probably continue being sold as accessories, but for those wearing them as protective measures in the front row, the trend is sure to be fleeting. Being that I’m young, healthy, and have no pre-existing health conditions, I’ll take my chances—for now.