Online Exhibition of Face Coverings Captures a Year of Crisis and Creativity
A review of the Westminster Menswear Archive's latest exhibition 'Undercover – From necessity to luxury: The evolution of face coverings during COVID-19'.
There is no doubt that the quintessential garment of the Covid-19 pandemic is the face mask. Worn over the nose and mouth to suppress transmission of the virus, this small piece of cloth has become a symbol of the current global crisis. An online exhibition of face coverings from the Westminster Menswear Archive, Undercover – From necessity to luxury: The evolution of face coverings during COVID-19 (11 May-5 June, 2021), traces the evolution of the face mask from a functional to fashionable object. With 52 variations of the simple cloth mask, the exhibition captures a year of crisis and creativity.
The exhibition begins with a plain black mask dating from March 2020, when the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown across England and Wales, and many other countries around the world were entering their first lockdown. The exhibition continues chronologically, tracing developments in the British government’s response to Covid-19 alongside the production of face masks at all levels of the fashion industry. High-resolution images of the face masks are displayed on the archive’s website, inviting users to closely inspect and compare the masks as they scroll through the exhibition.
The Westminster Menswear Archive is a teaching collection at the University of Westminster that consists predominantly of menswear garments designed and made in the UK or those that have influenced the development of British menswear and style. Correspondingly, the exhibition explores face coverings through a national and gender-specific lens. Many of the face masks selected for the exhibition illustrate how a seemingly banal object has been creatively interpreted by menswear brands to fit a variety of needs. Charles Tyrwhitt’s 2-in-1 Silk Face Mask/Pocket Square exemplifies the transformation of a practical face covering into a classic menswear staple. C.P. Company’s Chrome-R Visor Cap integrates a visor, removable mask, and mesh to protect the wearer against the virus, as well as nature’s elements. Louis Vuitton’s Monogram Tapestry Bandana Mask Cover Set reaches the height of mask-marketing, with a monogrammed LV mask priced at £350. These examples demonstrate that face coverings have moved beyond a necessity to a highly-covetable luxury item.
The exhibition also considers the use of face masks in the context of activism. Masks such as Hoezine’s Black Lives Matter Mask and Vivienne Westwood’s Climate Revolution Face Mask point to the wider political and environmental crises that have emerged during the pandemic. They show that masks have not only been used for function and fashion, but also to outwardly communicate political beliefs. Along this vein, however, the absence of face coverings during the pandemic could have played a larger role in the exhibition. In particular, mandatory mask policies have notably sparked anti-mask protests around the world. The prevalence of the anti-mask movement signifies the extreme politicisation of the face mask and its relevance to debates about freedom of dress.
In addition to the online exhibition of face coverings, the Westminster Menswear Archive’s website also hosts a photographic exhibition. Undercover: from Necessity to Debris, The Pollution of Face Coverings During COVID-19 features 365 images of discarded face masks found on the streets of England. The large quantity of images (one for every day of the first year of the pandemic) highlights the environmental impact of face masks, which are easily lost and frequently disposed of. With an estimate of 129 billion face masks being used globally every month, the exhibition illustrates that the face mask is yet another case of fashion’s waste problem.
Overall, the two exhibitions present the polarity of face coverings, which on one hand are frequently discarded items, and on the other, desirable luxury goods. They show how a small piece of cloth is bound to larger issues facing the fashion industry and the world at large, such as gender, politics, and sustainability. Moreover, they provoke important questions about the permanence of face masks, namely: What will happen to all these face coverings post-pandemic? Will they become trash, or garments to be treasured?
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