When the pandemic hit its stride in March 2020, the CDC established guidelines that required everyone to wear masks and social distance. Despite the incessant mask debate by some, people took to buying masks and making their own at home. Cloth masks are considered almost equally as effective as medical-grade masks, with the added benefit that they look more stylish. In addition, they are washable and create less waste. In the same way that sunglasses evolved from something functional to fashionable, masks went from a medical necessity to a fashion statement.

We all know that masks are here to stay for a while as we’re still enduring the pandemic. Therefore, brands and designers like FashionNova, Uniqlo, Gap, Adidas, Tory Burch, and Off-White all jumped on the bandwagon of selling masks. In fact, Off-White took this a step further by selling one of their masks for over a thousand dollars.

[image description: man wearing a black mask]
[image description: man wearing a black mask] via Instagram
This phenomenon sparked a debate surrounding the ethics of masks being considered fashion accessories. While it makes sense for people to buy and wear masks that complement their wardrobe, people seem to be uncomfortable with businesses essentially profiting off the virus. Back in 2020, the investment bank, KeyBanc Capital Markets, estimated that the mask market in the United States could be worth $6 billion by 2021 due to how profitable the mask business has become. However, masks evolving into fashion accessories have also trivialized the pandemic, taking something used to protect against a deadly virus and turning it into part of a fashion show.

On the flip side, making masks attractive can encourage people to wear them more. Part of the issue with getting some people to wear masks, especially younger people, was that surgical masks are typically thought to look unattractive. But if young, influential celebrities like Billie Eilish incorporate masks into their outfit in a stylish way, it could lead others to follow in their footsteps. And they may as well make the masks work for their outfits.

[image description: A young woman, Billie Eilish, wearing a mask and a hat]
[image description: A young woman, Billie Eilish, wearing a mask and a hat] via Instagram
Even with the gradual release of the vaccines,  and even though President Biden and the CDC have stated that those vaccinated are free to go unmasked to certain outdoor activities, about a third of adults in the US are still hesitant to get their vaccine. This is a major cause for concern, especially since the virus continues to devastate countries like India, and it may be a while before we see the end of this pandemic.

Masks can also be worn beyond the protection from COVID-19. Face masks were already in use since the 1950s in countries like Japan, China, and Taiwan for various medical and non-medical reasons. These include preventing the spread of colds or other viruses and acting as a face cover when no makeup is being worn. Additionally, masks are worn in these countries to protect people from air pollution, prevent being approached by strangers, and obscure one’s identity in situations like protests.

With this in mind, we may see masks incorporated into western culture the same way it has been in Asian countries. They have already become a part of our day-to-day lives and are used as a form of creative expression and protection from both the environment and diseases. People have been wearing masks to demonstrate their beliefs in various causes like the Black Lives Matter Movement and LGBTQ Pride. In these circumstances, their mask designs have text or colors that show support for these movements.

Above all else, we can’t forget the fact that so many of us already have a collection of masks at home that we’ll probably keep on wearing. So while the popularity of masks started as a sign of the times, they may well be here to stay.

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