Finding Fashion in the Face Mask

Hue magazine interviewed alumni designers, curators from the Museum at FIT, a journalist, and an accessories professor to the scoop on face mask style.

Now, designers are increasingly offering masks in an array of colors, prints, and styles: from happy florals to cool camo, from rich to retro to post-apocalyptic.

“I absolutely think you are going to see masks more in high fashion,” says designer and Fashion Design instructor Michael Kaye ’89, whose luxe handmade versions feature bold Liberty of London prints.

“I have the feeling that the Chanel tweed suit will have a Chanel tweed mouth covering with it,” Kaye predicts, “or there will be a Prada mask with the triangular logo as the mouthpiece that you breathe through, filtering the air.”

Man sewing a mask, and the NYT Magazine cover with a mask
Michael Kaye created the mask used on the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

After the pandemic hit, Marra-Alvarez and Way decided to include a mask in Head to Toe, whose May opening has been postponed due to the virus. Masks—like sunglasses and parasols, which were originally conceived for protective purposes—“have quickly become expressive and fashionable among the general public,” the curators wrote in an email. And like many other stylish accoutrements, masks are far more than meets the eye.

“In the current moment, face masks have become particularly potent accessories that represent important social issues,” they added. For example: “Ideas of contagion and protection, as well as social responsibility.”

Face coverings have long been used during times of crisis, both as protection and as a symbol. During the plague in the 1600s, doctors wore leather masks with pointed beaks stuffed with incense, since people mistakenly believed the plague was transmitted through smells. (As Museum at FIT Director Valerie Steele told Fast Company, “They were terrifying to look at and expressed the horror that that society was experiencing.”)

In the late 19th century, scientists began to learn more about germs and how they spread, and surgeons began wearing masks during procedures to protect patients. Women in the streets of Paris wore lace veils to protect themselves from dust particles. During the so-called Spanish Flu outbreak, from 1918 to 1919, officials convinced Americans to comply with mask-wearing ordinances by saying it was their patriotic duty to protect one another and the troops as they fought World War I.

The Second World War brought a whole other set of dangers, and Europeans often carried gas masks, in case of an aerial bombing. According to Ellen Lynch, professor in the Footwear and Accessories Design Department, luxury brands like Hermès found inspiration and profit in these new, often government-issued head-coverings.

“It gave the accessory industry an opportunity to create bags that these masks were held in, which was a boon for the handbag industry,” she says. These rectangular bags also sparked a trend that would far outlast the war. “Of course, the box bag after a while became a regular fashion statement,” Lynch adds. “And now they come in a variety of shapes.”

Westerners kept the bags but have been slow to embrace face coverings as fashion, unlike in East Asia, where it’s not uncommon to see hip young people donning “edgy” or “cute” masks as part of a coordinated look—at, many “Harajuku boys” and “Lolitas” model the accessory. It has infiltrated high fashion there too: The Museum at FIT owns an ensemble by Shanghai-based designer Masha Ma, which includes a delicate floral face mask. Still, it’s hard to shed those connotations of disease and death in the U.S.—partly because previous recent epidemics, such as SARS and MERS, didn’t affect the West as much as it did parts of Asia, and partly because the collective, public-good ethos behind mask-wearing in the East doesn’t quite mesh with the individualism so prized in America.

Yet that attitude is changing—and designers are leading the charge, helping “normalize” mask-wearing by creating beautiful, functional masks that people will actually want to wear.

Alumni Pivot Their Focus to Masks

“I remember the first time I wore a face mask back in March, and I was startled by how humbling the experience was,” Daniel Vosovic, Fashion Design ’05, recalls. “I felt unnerved wearing it, I felt that I unnerved others around me. No one could see my smile or my personality. It was like all anyone could see was M-A-S-K coming at them.”

That’s why Vosovic started manufacturing masks for his made-to-order label The Kit. These cotton coverings feature bright flowers, beach scenes, and vibrant colors. The Kit offers five masks for $50, with all profits going directly to a COVID-19 relief fund. Vosovic says that the fund has raised more than $10,000 so far.

“I am very much a believer in being the bright spot,” Vosovic says. “There is something powerful about the fact that through color and print, you can not only change your own outlook but the outlook of those around you. Being the bright spot, even in dark cloudy times, can make a world of difference.”

Designer Chloe Dao, Patternmaking Technology ’94, says that selling masks is a way to keep her business going at a time when people are buying less and shops and boutiques are closing. The Houston designer initially began making masks out of scraps of fabric to give to medical and essential workers, asking her Instagram followers for donations. “Then I got this email, saying, ‘I would love to donate, but I want to be guaranteed a mask,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should sell these.’ Bills were coming up, I had run out of fabric and had to buy more, I was still paying my employees, so I was like, ‘I need to be realistic about this.’”

Now, the season two Project Runway winner sells masks in several patterns in cotton or an antibacterial neoprene for between $12 and $25. The funds enable Dao to avoid losing money while providing masks to homeless shelters, medical workers, and more. She says she’s donated 4,000 masks so far.

Kaye says that despite using expensive fabrics, he feels that he can’t charge more than $10 for one of his signature creations. “The price covers the [cost of production] and my time,” he says. “I don’t want to price gouge—I see this as paying it forward.”

The designer initially wanted to donate masks to hospitals, using a pattern from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I had a table full of Liberty of London fabrics under my table, and I made 50 of them,” he says. “Then the edicts came out that hospitals did not want homemade masks.”

Kaye instead distributed the swanky masks to neighbors and friends. “My partner walks the dog in Central Park with a whole litany of Park Avenue ladies, and they all started wearing them. Soon I was getting all these orders from the Upper East Side.”

Since then he’s made more than 1,000 masks, and has expanded his offerings to include children’s sizes (in fun cartoon prints). He has 101 different prints to choose from, ranging from art nouveau swirls to elegant butterflies to tough tartans.

And the high-end designer, who has gowns in FIT’s and the Met’s collections, treats mask-making as seriously as his couture.

“This isn’t a short-term thing,” Kaye says. “The world is going to have to be wearing masks, and it might be for a while. It could be forever. So I try to make them as extremely beautiful as I can.”

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