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Expressive protection: How masks have evolved into fashion

Interviewing people all over the globe about their preferred style and the meaning of the accessory
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NATHALIE WHITTEN/THE VARSITY
NATHALIE WHITTEN/THE VARSITY

I read a post on Instagram from the Department of Visual Studies (DVS) at UTM that called students to participate in their face mask design contest. According to the caption, the DVS was searching for “designs, graphics, and logos that display departmental pride.” 

The post didn’t surprise me. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been wearing masks for utilitarian reasons — to prevent the spread of the virus and to follow the health and safety guidelines required by our government when navigating public spaces.

Nearly two years later, the pandemic rages on due to the recent emergence of the Omicron variant, and the function of masks has evolved and expanded. 

Currently, masks can also be worn to establish our sense of belonging to a place or group. This could mean wearing one to assure the people you’re gathering with that you value their safety, to promote a social cause that you believe in, or to take the extra step to support a local business. 

Ever since I read the DVS post, I began paying closer attention to the masks that people around me wore. I was curious about how the masks we wear reflect our identity, personality, and attitude. To satisfy my curiosity, I interviewed U of T students and creatives located around the world to learn about their mask wearing habits. 

Masks as identity

As masks became an essential item for indoor activities during the pandemic, boutiques and artist initiatives began to design different styles. This innovation transformed masks from facial coverings to a new fashion trend and a method of personal expression. 

“My mask is black and white, it has a bandana-like pattern on it. The mask I wore before this was also black and white, but with a star pattern,” U of T art and art history student Emily Edwards wrote to The Varsity. “I chose my mask to match my clothing. Black matches with everything and it’s the colour I wear most often… It is similar to the clothes I wear to express myself.”

Veronica Spiljak, a UTM alum and an interdisciplinary artist, agrees with Edwards’ point of view. Spiljak explained that she prefers floral, blue, black, and cream masks with text or graphic design elements. 

“Some of the designs that I gravitate towards… are reflective of what I like to do in my own art practice, such as writing, poetry, and text-based art,” the artist explained. “I do notice that when I am wearing my favourite masks… I feel most myself and in higher spirits than normal. Especially when my mask matches my outfits. That gets me excited.”

Spiljak added that, when she wears “boring” masks, such as medical ones, her mood is unaffected, especially if she is in an emergency. “But I guess if it was a formal event, medical masks can definitely feel a bit casual,” she explained. “If I’m at my work (which is an art gallery in Toronto), I use either the gallery’s masks that they sell, or medical masks on hand.”

Besides being used as an outlet for personal self-expression, masks can also be worn to establish identity as part of an organization. 

Belicia, a freelance photographer and social and online editor at The Medium, explained that she often wears black or logo-branded masks provided by companies as promotional material.

“One mask I have is for a photography studio, and I try to wear it when doing work for them,” the photographer wrote. 

Masks for practicality

Though some prefer to wear masks which showcase their identity, others simply choose their masks for practicality. 

Clàudia Presas, a nutritionist and theatre employee in Catalonia, Spain, explained that she wears black and blue masks most often. Presas prefers a basic style, and thinks that black is the most practical colour of mask because of its ability to pair well with any other colour.

She elaborated that her black mask combines well with the black uniform of the theatre at which she works. Outside of work, she usually wears a blue mask made by her friend’s mother. “It matches with a lot of my clothing,” she wrote. 

Helen Yu, a student at UTM, thinks similarly to Presas. Yu, a professional writing and communications major, often wears a white disposable mask, explaining that she also chose her style of mask for practicality purposes.

“It’s the most breathable type for me and not too thick, so it doesn’t make my face feel bulky,” Yu wrote. “I guess it somewhat reflects my personality — it’s mostly nondescript so I blend in with the crowd and it’s comfortable and neat, which is important to me.”

“I would rather have people get to know me by talking to me than seeing a fancy mask,” she added. “White masks are very ‘tabula rasa’ [a clean slate] and [keep] things open to interpretation.”

Though Presas and Yu are content with how their masks don’t call attention to themselves, there are others who mask up, but dislike the accessory’s ability to camouflage personality and facial expression. 

Masks to enhance appearance

Interestingly, there are individuals who regard masks’ camouflaging function as a method of enhancing their appearance.

“Since people can’t see my face [while wearing a mask], I don’t bother putting on makeup. I think these masks make me look less hea [lazy] or [dull],” wrote Ariel Lai, a food blogger from Hong Kong.

“I want to buy some [blush masks], but I need some time to find them,” Lai added. 

However, it isn’t just physical appearance that individuals are seeking to alter by wearing masks. Sky Ravinn, a Toronto-based artist and musician, explained that the mask they wear makes them look cheerful, even when feeling sad.

“[It’s] a black cloth mask with a little cast mouth that’s smiling, with some anime blush,” they explained. “I blush a lot and smile a lot. Through the pandemic I got sad that I wouldn’t be able to do those things and smile at people… but then I found this mask.” 

After hearing about the opinions of masks from people around the world, I’m amazed by the diversity of functions that masks have taken on during our pandemic. As we progress toward a post-pandemic world, I’m left to wonder whether the accessory will be disregarded in time, or if people will continue to wear masks in their daily lives beyond their original health purpose.

If you’re wondering with me, don’t get too excited. Bloomberg writes that, as of January 15, 9.48 million people worldwide were getting their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine every day, and the goal of halting the pandemic “remains elusive.” So it’ll be a while until we uncover these answers.

In the meantime, we’re offered a creative accessory to ease our wait — the winning design of the DVS mask contest will be printed and distributed to students while supplies last.