Opinion: can the fashion industry help to turn face masks into a must-wear accessory?

With a mandatory mask rule in effect on Irish public transport, commuters' attention is drawn to how they will face this latest sartorial challenge. With supplies of surgical masks and N95s best left to healthcare professionals and essential workers, what other coverings are available? And with guidance on how to wear face masks to be found elsewhere, how has the fashion industry turned face masks into the latest must-wear fashion accessory?

In the early days of the pandemic, social media was full of ad-hoc face coverings, made from everything from cabbage leaves to large plastic water containers. During lockdown, we admired family and friends proudly displaying their new found craft skills by making DIY masks at home and sharing the results via Instagram. Masks are being whittled left, right and centre from repurposed clothing and bedlinens.

For those of us with limited sewing skills, there is hope out there. Although it goes against the grain that a global pandemic should lead to the fashion industry making a profit, aesthetically-pleasing face masks may be just what we need right now to keep case numbers low as we enter the new normal. With high numbers of Covid-19 reported in Ireland among younger people, what is available to encourage them to wear masks?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Laura Callinan talks about making face masks for her new company Street Masks Ireland

Online fashion sites targeted at this demographic offer masks that appeal to all genders with a myriad of colours, patterns and messages. These masks are relatively cheap (a selection are currently available for €4 before delivery costs) so best to order these in bulk.

K-Pop stars made face masks popular in Korea long before Covid-19 (this was in an attempt to hide their faces, but also because masks were already in common use in countries like Japan, China and South Korea). There is now a whole range available in any colour as long as it is black! American pop star Ariana Grande has a range of official face masks, masks that carry the logo of your favourite trainers and masks that can be used while doing sports if necessary.

Boots have a pack of three designer masks, one by Welsh fashion designer Julien Macdonald, known for being Alexander McQueen's successor at Givenchy. The pack also contains a design by RIXO, a duo of designers (one of whom Orlagh McCloskey is from Dungiven, Co Derry), and by Liam Hodges, a luxury streetwear brand from London. For those with a larger budget and looking for something ethical RASHR, an Irish company that usually make rash vests for surfers, is turning ocean waste into face masks. Their products are made from 100% recycled polyesters, combined with recycled elastane.

From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, Marie-Claire Whelan from the Irish Linen House on how they completely changed their business to begin making linen face masks

Irish designers are creating reusable face masks, in various designs and patterns including those aimed at a brides and grooms, although hopefully there will not be a need to be for these to be reused in the future. For those looking for something plainer in natural materials, The Irish Linen House have a range of 100% linen masks. Indeed, mask providers have sprung up all over Ireland, so check your social media sites.

As fashionistas know, the fabulous green dress worn by Kate Middleton when she visited Ireland was by The Vampires Wife. Fans of Killing Eve will know that Villanelle also wore a stunning dress from the same designer when striding through Barcelona (now renamed the Villanelle dress). The label, founded by Susie Cave (wife of Nick Cave), is now making face masks to match its clothing

Artist Ai Weiwei is using masks as his latest medium. Handmade in his Berlin studio, they contain messages encouraging social change and all profits are going to charity. These masks are single use, but come with a statement signed by the artist. They could be framed after use and an ideal gift for art lovers.

For those who have to undertake essential international travel, Italian designer Marta Scarampi designed a waterproof jumpsuit, complete with hood, elastic at ankles and wrists, with a matching face mask. The outfit was originally designed to enable her sister to travel as safely as possible from Rome to New York to reunite with her husband.

With the men’s July fashion shows in Paris and Milan cancelled, it will be interesting to see what the governing bodies behind the New York, London, Paris and Milan fashion weeks agree to for the women’s shows in September. Some fashion houses are going their own way. Gucci announced they were stepping back from the fashion week calendar, with brand creative director Alessandro Michele arguing the categorising of fashion into spring/summer and autumn/winter "are stale and underfed words, clothes should have a longer life than that which these words attribute to them. So much outrageous greed made us lose the harmony and the care, the connection and the belonging."

Perhaps between global warming and the global pandemic, there will be a change in the fashion industry. We may never see the likes of the spectacular shows of Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel again. But whatever form fashion takes this autumn, we can be assured that we will be seeing the most creative masks imaginable on a catwalk or virtually. Use this period to express your own style as there is something out there for everybody and you might just spread some joy among your commuters. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ