Fashion, for many, is all about fantasy. In normal circumstances, this week we would have spent several days picking apart the outrageous outfits of celebrities attending the Met Gala (the theme would have been About Time: Fashion and Duration). But instead, at least here in Illinois, we're left to contemplate a future with a mandatory, less-than-fantastical item: the face mask.
"The face mask is the it accessory of 2020," says Gaudy God designer Matt Kasin. "We've seen entertainers wearing and designers showing face coverings over the past year. This is an example of a style/trend becoming a necessity."
As of May 1, Illinoisians are required to wear a face covering in any place where they might not be able to maintain a six-foot distance. While the mandate certainly brings to mind a dystopian landscape filled with surgical masks, to local designers it brings an opportunity to create something new, support themselves and others out of work, and stop the spread of COVID-19.
Barrel Maker Printing first jumped on selling T-shirts featuring images of Chicago icons like the Tamale Man, Quimby's, and Thalia Hall to raise money for local small businesses—they've raised more than $70,000 to date. It was an easy transition from there to include masks in those efforts, using the same screen-printing style the company is known for. Director of operations Justin Moore says that they've already started experimenting with using materials that would be more breathable and stylish than the typical T-shirt materials they work with. In the coming weeks they'll be producing masks made from bamboo, hemp, and other soft, natural fibers.
Roger Rodriguez from Jugrnaut is also getting creative with materials, in part because fabric stores have closed. "I found some old vintage polo bear fabrics and coffee sacks that were given to me by Dark Matter Coffee," he says. "I had them dyed by a good friend Saint Millie, and I created my first batch of masks with those materials." He envisions a future where people have a different mask for each day of the week or each outfit, and he wanted to get a jump on creating "dope" masks for people who want to stand out.
One look at Instagram, and it seems there are already masks for every style. Kasin, @gaudygod, creates masks out of a rainbow light-reflective fabric, initially designed with a pair of matching shorts. Chelsea Hood, @chelshood, offers 14 different prints to choose from and also specializes in masks for children. Michaela Vargas Caro, @bricomode, has drawn inspiration from textiles used in her Bolivian textiles.
"Having this material that I intrinsically relate to through my upbringing and can now use stylistically to address our current protective needs provides a sense of comfort through self-expression, my cultural identity, and style to connect with others in various communities, especially during social distancing," Vargas Caro says.
Even as designers are thinking more and more about how these masks look, the function needs to be prioritized. Hood knows this firsthand—it was her brush with COVID-19 in the early weeks of March that inspired her to start creating masks. While she was unable to get tested, Hood experienced textbook symptoms and says she was the sickest she has ever been for two weeks.
"After being face-to-face with it, I knew how important it was to take the virus seriously," Hood says. "Aesthetically, deep down, I don't give a shit what they look like. The masks I'm making have a 3M Filtrete viral air filter in them because at the end of the day, I want to keep my loved ones, and the people they love, healthy."
Hood is also using this opportunity to support others. She's hiring out-of-work comedians to make deliveries instead of relying on the now overloaded post office, accepting donations to send supplies to the team of nurses with Krucial Staffing in New York pop-up COVID hospitals, and donating masks to the Daybreak Shelter in Joliet.
All these designers agree that face masks aren't disappearing anytime soon. And while major fashion houses have already started jumping on the trend, there are plenty of local artists who are offering affordable, unique styles that are brightening up dark times.
"Humans usually have a way of turning things that might seem dreadful into something novel that subverts that sentiment," Vargas Caro says. "I think there is something exciting to look out for down the line in how this particular health/fashion accessory integrates into the fashion industry and our culture." v