The simple cloth mask, a seemingly non-gendered and unsophisticated object, has rapidly become a symbolic, gendered, and contested artefact through its adoption in response to Covid-19. In particular, the design, marketing, and use of these masks underline long-standing narratives within menswear that are concerned with ideas of protection, armour, and masculinity.
Since April 2020, the Westminster Menswear Archive (WMA) has been documenting the rapidly evolving reaction to the pandemic in the UK through the acquisition of masks and PPE to add to the archive’s permanent collection. From the fashion industry’s initial response producing free masks for healthcare workers, to the emergence of designer iterations from companies including Burberry, J.W. Anderson and Turnbull & Asser, the masks produced in response to Covid-19 are both surprising and revealing.
While the pandemic has made the wearing of masks mandatory, over the last 20 years masks have increasingly been adopted as a motif of modern menswear. Designers, including Vexed Generation, C.P. Company, A-COLD-WALL* and Off-White, have all deliberately referenced masks within their collections. Using historical examples from the WMA, this presentation will explore the reasons why masks originally designed for industrial, military, or functional usage have become such a critical component of contemporary menswear.