The Surgical Mask Is Coming for the Met Museum, the Red Carpet, and Your Face

By alaina.demopoulos@thedailybeast.com (Alaina Demopoulos)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

Good news to anyone about to perform an appendectomy: the surgical mask has become a capital-F fashion accessory.

Take it from Miley Cyrus, who sported a Louis Vuitton mask when she had the flu last month: The drab white iteration is out, and bedazzled antiviral protection is so in.

You could also chose to cough into this $63 Face Mask by South Korean fashion label Blindness. The rather thong-like number is currently on sale in the Met’s gift shop as part of the New York museum’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition.

Whatever Camp Is, You Won’t Find It in The Met’s ‘Camp’ Exhibit

Kendall Jenner slipped a white one over her face at Coachella last year to protect her lungs against the desert dust (and maybe in an attempt to not breathe the same air as the festival's more basic attendees).

Surgical masks have existed for over 100 years. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 50 and 100 million people just as World War I waned, such coverings were not an uncommon sight. Mask-mania peaked again decades later, when fears of SARS, bird flu, and swine flu gripped the world.

One look at Miley Cyrus’ logo-d out Vuitton covering and you might think the current surgical mask renaissance is born out of vanity, not a virus. But as Vox’s Rose Eveleth wrote in March, a slew of new brands are offering tricked-out masks as “an accessory ripe for the market in these dystopian times.”

Marc Brown, co-founder of the California-based Vogmask, sells coverings that start at $33. Brown told Vox that while the mask market is still “niche,” he believes the product can help protect against poor air quality. “We’re going to improve the materials of the product itself so that it feels like a more expensive item that you can invest in,” Brown promised.

The masks come in both solid colors and prints that resemble the wallpaper of a very nice bar bathroom: a medieval unicorn tapestry, leopards lounging in a jungle, and hummingbirds drawing nectar from a pink rose.

Brian Ashcroft of the video game website Kotaku wrote in February that Korean pop stars have also influenced the resurgence of black “sickness masks.” Members of the boy band SHINee, known as the “princes of K-pop,” have worn black masks while traveling, spiking interest in the accessory.

The aesthetic brings to mind Michael Jackson, who was often and besieged by the paparazzi while wearing a black surgical mask during the '90s “Wacko Jacko” tabloid era. In 2012, the one Michael wore during the last tour rehearsal before his death at age 50 sold at auction for over $20,000.

Dr. Waleed Javaid, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown, told The Daily Beast that he does not recommend patients rush out to get a mask of their own.

“It can give you a false sense of security,” Dr. Javaid said. “Surgical mask wearing, along with good hand and respiratory hygiene are all important [in preventing the spread of germs].”

Last week, Kesha wore a crystal face mask on the red carpet of a Musicares event. The singer wrote on Instagram that the Laurel DeWitt accessory mimicked a muzzle, and was her silent protest against the Alabama abortion ban.

“The rights for women to choose about our own bodies is being threatened and taken away in some states,” Kesha wrote in a caption. “The only way I could actually keep my mouth shut last night was physically putting a muzzle on myself for the red carpet.”

(One wonders why Kesha felt the need to metaphorically silence herself with the mask while lamenting the suppression of women, but her dissent seems well-intended and sincere.)

DeWitt, who designed the sparkling veil, told The Daily Beast over email that the look was inspired by “global regalia.” The chain and metal artist, who has also worked with Beyoncé and Cardi B, wrote that she also hoped to communicate a “warrior aesthetic.”

The mask took around three days to make, during which DeWitt linked a chain together and played around with its tension to make sure the bespoke piece would fit her clients head and face. After securing the correct size, DeWitt added the near-blinding crystals.

“Masks are definitely a trend in music videos, performances, and editorial [shoots], but I think it’s trickier on the red carpet, because you’re meant to show your face [there],” DeWitt wrote.

Virgil Abloh's streetwear label Off-White currently sells a $105 black cotton jersey mask, with the line's name stamped right in the center. Over at Urban Outfitters, $15 will buy you one adorned with the Rolling Stones' lip logo. So safe to say even if the mask market is still a budding one, it's already been branded to death.

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