Can Masks Be Fashionable?

Seattle designers craft pandemic gear worthy of becoming a wardrobe staple—after all, we might be wearing it for a while.

By Zoe Sayler April 14, 2020

When the first wave of Covid-19 panic hit Seattle at the beginning of March, my mom brought over a care package stocked with Pedialyte, every medicine known to man, and a Ziploc bag of dust masks that went mostly forgotten until the CDC recommended that we all gear upBut even then, I couldn't bring myself to wear them (and not just because the paper type probably isn’t useful for virus prevention). 

Because masks, my friends, are ugly.

Prioritizing function over fashion is often a recipe for aesthetic disaster. Helmets save skulls but destroy good hairdos; rain boots, for the most part, are too clunky. There are usually exceptions (just ask the Seattleites who shell out hundreds of dollars for galoshes with brand power and fashionable colorways). Go for a quick jaunt around town and you’ll see that that’s true for masks, too.

On the high-fashion end of the spectrum are styles from Seattle designer Lisa Marie, who pivoted after wedding cancellations wiped out 80 percent of her business. She’s clung to her couture ethos: She decorated her first mask with the silky, Swarovski-studded flowers that might adorn a bridal gown; she draped another in coral neoprene and topped it with a beaded bee (“buzz off, Covid-19!”). Now she’s fulfilling custom orders (customers pick what they pay—typically between $15 and $100, depending on the complexity of the design). 

“We’re kind of fashion-starved, right?” she says. “When you do make that occasional venture out right now, it’s so much fun to have a fashion mask.” So long as you're in for a bit of steam cleaning.

Simpler approaches can make covering up more bearable, too—just ask fashion designer and teaching artist Malia Peoples, who started making masks with her students at Yesler Terrace in February. She’d give civic-minded skeptics “advice I would give to anybody trying to wear a new look: What do you love?" she says. "Is there some color that brings out the color of your eyes, for example, or makes your skin tone look dope?”

And don’t forget the silhouette. Perhaps most common is the accordion-style—local fashion designer Shari Noble says it’s less polished-looking, but a bit more size-accommodating than her preferred tailored look. If you’re worried about your hair, opt for the type with elastic that wraps around your ears; if you need room for adjustment, elastic that wraps around your head may be best. 

If you’ve got the money to pay a professional, there’s no shame in that game. Noble sells masks (made from vintage deadstock fabric!) on her site Maison la Macón; fashion designer Bellyflop revamps airbrushed bed sheets; you can even filter your Etsy search to find a plethora of Seattle-based makers churning out bedazzled and Biggie Smallspatterned versions.

Anyone skeptical about the whole pursuit should consider Lisa Marie’s apocalyptic point: We could be wearing masks for a while, maybe even a year, making them something of a staple accessory. During certain months, they could be more common in Seattle than sunglasses.

And if liking the way you look in a mask makes you more likely to wear the damn thing… Well, I can’t think of anything more fashionable.

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