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Surgical Masks: From Protection to Fashion?


Surgical Masks: From Protection to Fashion?


By Lambert Strether of Corrente

This is going to be a pretty random post, and I’m not even going to add a potted history of masks (not even in Asia). I’m going to start out with my own simple experience of mask-wearing, and then give a random selection from the incredible ferment of mask-making by many small artisans and manufacturers all over the world. (Note that “small artisan” goes all the petites mains of the House of Chanel.) Massive uptake of mask-wearing would have significant health benefits, and shaming doesn’t seem to be working real well. Maybe if we start thinking of masks as fashion items, uptake will improve.

To begin, my starting point is the surgical mask, like this:

Surgical Masks: From Protection to Fashion? 2

Cloth, with loops on either side to fasten round the ears, creating a loose seal. (I am not talking about N95 masks[1] or respirators, because they are products built to industrial standards that small artisans cannot meet.) The first surgical mask, of ordinary cloth, was invented and worn by Paul Berger, a French surgeon, in 1897. By 1913-1919 their use in the operating theatre was general. Today, the cloth was been replaced by non-woven microfiber, petroleum-based (naturally) and produced (naturally) in large textile mills by machine[2]. The best comes from (naturally) a single source in (naturally) Germany.

Because I’m not a player of American roulette — where you point the gun at somebody else’s skull (while mentally congratulating yourself on your own rugged individualism) — I wear a surgical mask (as pictured above) outdoors, and will do so for the duration of the #COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the surgical mask[3] — being disposable — is not designed for comfort, or aesthetic pleasure, or self-expression, or any of the other reasons one might choose to wear an article of clothing. The problems I have:

1) The mask is a duty to wear, not a pleasure to wear. I am not a fashion plate, being an old WASP codger. That said, I do choose my clothes to, well, reinforce my (perceived) class position, but the mask — as something that is not really trying very hard to be an article of clothing — does not allow me to do that.

2) The mask is disposable. Well, not, of course, because I wash mine and hang them out in the sun for several days. That said, throwaway culture is unattractive and wrong. I hate to think that filling up landfills is a requirement to keep others (and myself) safe.

3) The mask loops irritate my ears. Not badly, but I do feel a twinge, and since I have to wear glasses in order to see, I worry about the twinge becoming permanent.

4) The mask requires fiddling.. Everybody says, “Don’t touch the mask!” — because either it has the virus on it, or will after you touch it — but that’s not possible for me. I wear glasses, my glasses are constantly slipping down my nose, and to prevent the mask and my glasses from interfering with each other, I need to adjust the mask. I also need to shape the mask around my nose.

5) The mask is unpleasant to breath through. The mask does not deprive me of oxygen, but the sensation of blowing the mask away from my mouth, and then inhalling the mask back toward my mouth, is unpleasant. It’s like having a paper napkin held over my mouth at all times. It may be that cloth would be more pleasant than non-woven fabric.

6) The mask steams up my glasses. When it’s hot enough outside, my breath gets steamy — possibly by being held behind the mask — and then my glasses fog up.

With that, I will present a large number of tweets about masks from small artisans. I can’t find anything about how to prevent my glasses from fogging up, but I can find material on making masks a pleasure to wear, eliminating fiddling, and fixing mask loop problems. When I’m done with that survey, I’ll venture into more exotic forms of masquing.

Making Masks a Pleasure to Wear

I have been long fashion-forward masks for some time; this caught my eye back in March:

Of course, this mask is practical only if you have servants to clean the jewels, but fashion shows are not about practicality. The essential point is to bring the mask into the world of fashion (much as Nike did with what we once called “sneakers”).

Of course, most masks are not bejewelled; instead, makers mostly vary the fabric. For example, this mask might find some uptake in, well, Michigan:

Here are more pretty masks with various fabrics:

Here is an example of self-expression through fabric supplied by the customer:

Here is a pretty mask with a restaurant use case (but see Appendix One):

Making Masks Reusable

This is, I think, a matter of the fabric used (which in my view would also need to be decorated as normal fabric (see above), as witih silk-screening, applique, etc. The Independent:

New technology is also likely to revolutionise the use of face masks. At present most masks are not designed to be reusable – but a new process, initially developed at Bar Ilan University in Israel, is set to change that. Pioneered by a Tel Aviv-based company, Sonovia, the new process uses very high frequency sound waves to impregnate textiles with virucidal (but safe for humans) zinc oxide and copper oxide nano-particles. The new potentially virus-killing masks will be reusable – and capable of being washed and re-used around 90 times.

90 times is certainly better than one. However, it does seem to me that a mask business model could be constructed along the razor and blade business model, where the “breath-through” section — which could be medical grade — was replaceable.

Here is a second example of a reusable mask. From WRAL in Raleigh, NC:

[Raleigh teenage brothers Dylan and Connor Clark] said they saw a need in the market for facial coverings that were comfortable and reusable.

“It’s been really fun for me and my brother to just stay up late at night to do something to help the community,” said Dylan.

CopperSAFE masks are infused with copper, a naturally occurring antimicrobial, self sanitizing element, which one study suggests is better than common materials at preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

At $15 a pop, they are also completely washable, available in youth sizes and can be customized.

The masks are currently being manufactured at a cut and sew facility near Asheville, but the brothers said they are exploring partnerships in Garner and Greensboro.

NIce to see that there’s some textile manufacturing capacity left in the United States. Note the self-expression possible…. through corporate branding:


Here is a third example of a reusable mask, also with copper. From Associated Press:

Facing the growing pandemic, CoureTex is producing reusable face masks embedded with fine threads of copper. The incorporation of copper into the mask’s fabric acts as a barrier to the transmission of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This family-owned and operated company, which obtained an invention patent in 2018, says it is the only business in the world to manufacture this type of product. Its antibacterial and antimicrobial fabric – assured by British certification company Intertek and Brazil’s Senai – has also been used against the H1N1 virus. One of the mask’s distinguishing characteristics is that, unlike paper masks, it can be washed more than 50 times, which, according to its creators, means that it lasts up to one year.

And here is an example of a botched rollout of copper masks, in Hong Kong. South China Morning Post:

The masks were patented and developed by the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA), a government-funded non-profit organisation.

They incorporate copper as a key filtering component and its name, CuMask+, is derived from the chemical symbol for copper.

More than 2.5 million Hongkongers, as of Friday, have registered to receive a free washable mask, which was manufactured by Crystal International Group, the Hong Kong-listed company awarded the contract without facing competition.

The CuMask+ was greeted with derision by some Hong Kongers:

More derision:

A salutary lesson!

Making Masks That Don’t Irritate the Ears

My ears are not this bad (caution: Surgical textbook-style colored plate material ahead):

So here are some solutions for ears. The 3D printing community has been printing “ear savers”:

Here is a solution for loops that are fabric, not elastic:

This one bypasses the ears entirely:

The difficulty with all the above, is that you have to have carry the mask and some other item (like an iPhone with dongles). Here is a design that doesn’t loop around the ears at all:

Clearly, this mask would not irritate the ears at all. Morever, it solves the issue of fiddling, becase the front of the mask is metallic, so you could clean it with alchohol (unlike fabric). But I can’t tell what prevents it from sliding down round the neck. Readers?

Making Exotic Masks

I didn’t add this to my list of requirements:

Kill it with fire:

Doggos and puppers:

Onre more for Michigan:

And of course, this famous one:


“Now, it’s complete because it’s ended here,” as the Fremen say. Readers, what is your mask experience? What do you think your mask experience should be? Oh, and I forgot the basic premise of the post: that #COVID-19 is not not the first pandemic, and will not be the last. The next one could be really bad. So, culturally, we had better get masked up.


[1] The precursor to the N95 mask was invented by a Malaysian doctor named Lien-teh Wu during a pneumonic, zoonotic pandemic (!) in Manchuria and Mongolia, which he determinted to be airborne via autopsy, then not accepted in China.

[2] I fantasize of the cloth portion made from banana leaves or bamboo, like Ghandi spinning cotton by hand, for example.

[3] When I say “surgical mask,” I’m referring to the construcion, cloth and loops, not to the grade. From The Fashion Law:

It is well understood that “masks must be made with strict [often legally-governed] standards and patterns in mind,” Emily Brayshaw, a professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, asserts, while also observing various labeling guidelines. (The existence of such strict federal regulations when it comes to masks is almost certainly why “designers who are making masks have begun to emphasize that they are ‘non-surgical,’” per GQ). Such standards – which include the use of specific medical-grade textiles and coating technologies that aid in filtration (to ensure that the masks do, in fact, serve to block minuscule airborne particles), and manufacture and storage of the masks in an environment that meets the legally-defined “quality system requirements” – can be difficult to meet. As many of the designers that have set out to make masks and other PPE told GQ, they “now find themselves facing manufacturing quandaries, with some stalled by unclear guidelines and a lack of access to medical-grade fabrics.”

Even if the majority of fashion-made masks are not the same as traditionally utilized by medical professionals, given the overwhelming shortage of masks, the FDA recently revealed that it will observe some slightly more lax rules when it comes to masks. As indicated in a March 2020 release, the government entity stated that during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, it will “not object to the marketing and distribution of” certain face masks without the usually-required prior-clearance, a move that stands to enable brands that want to help to do so without having to get too far into the weeds from a legal perspective.

Cloth masks are better than no masks. This is not a post about medical-grade surgical masks. However, I don’t see a reason why “medical-grade textiles and coating technologies” cannot be made available in a less vertically integrated system than we have now. “Odd lots,” we called then, back in the day.

APPENDIX: Jack Vance, The Moon Moth

From the opening scene of this great short story. Edwer Thissell arrives on the planet Sirene in the city of Fan to take up his ambassadorship, and is greeted at the spaceport by the local agent, Esteban Rolver:

Masks are worn at all times, in accordance with the philosophy that a man should not be compelled to use a similitude foisted upon him by factors beyond his control; that he should be at liberty to choose that semblance most consonant with his strakh. In the civilized areas of Sirene — which is to say the Titanic littoral — a man literally never shows his face; it is his basic secret. Gambling, by this token, is unknown on Sirene; it would be catastrophic to Sirenese self-respect to gain advantage by means other than the exercise of strakh. The word “luck” has no counterpart in the Sirenese language. Thissell made another note: Get mask. Museum? Drama guild? He finished the article, hastened forth to complete his preparations, and the next day embarked….

Strakh seems a lot like Leguin’s shifgrethor on the planet Winter, or, well, “face” in some Asian cultures.

The lighter grounded and Edwer Thissell stepped forth. He was met by Esteban Rolver, the local agent for Spaceways. Rolver threw up his hands, stepped back. “Your mask,” he cried huskily. “Where is your mask?” Thissell held it up rather self-consciously. “I wasn’t sure—” “Put it on,” said Rolver, turning away. He himself wore a fabrication of dull green scales, blue-lacquered wood. Black quills protruded at the cheeks, and under his chin hung a black-and-white-checked pompom, the total effect creating a sense of sardonic supple personality. Thissell adjusted the mask to his face, undecided whether to make a joke about the situation or to maintain a reserve suitable to the dignity of his post. “Are you masked?” Rolver inquired over his shoulder. Thissell replied in the affirmative and Rolver turned. … “You can’t wear that mask!” sang Rolver. “In fact—how, where, did you get it?” “It’s copied from a mask owned by the Polypolis museum,” Thissell declared stiffly. “I’m sure it’s authentic.” Rolver nodded, his own mask seeming more sardonic than ever. “Its authentic enough. It’s a variant of the type known as the Sea Dragon Conqueror, and is worn on ceremonial occasions by persons of enormous prestige: princes, heroes, master craftsmen, great musicians.” “I wasn’t aware—” Rolver made a gesture of languid understanding. “It’s something you’ll learn in due course. Notice my mask. To-day I’m wearing a Tarn Bird. Persons of minimal prestige— such as you, I, any other out-worlder— wear this sort of thing.” “Odd,” said Thissell, as they started across the field to-ward a low concrete blockhouse. “I assumed that a person wore whatever he liked.” “Certainly,” said Rolver. “Wear any mask you like—if you can make it stick. This Tarn Bird for instance. I wear it to indicate that I presume nothing. I make no claims to wisdom, ferocity, versatility, musicianship, truculence, or any of a dozen other Sirenese virtues.” “For the sake of argument,” said Thissell, “what would happen if I walked through the streets of Zundar in this mask?” Rolver laughed, a muffled sound behind his mask. “If you walked along the docks of Zundar—there are no streets— in any mask, you’d be killed within the hour. That’s what happened to Benko, your predecessor. He didn’t know how to act. None of us out-worlders know how to act. In Fan we’re tolerated—so long as we keep our place. But you couldn’t even walk around Fan in that regalia you’re sporting now. Somebody wearing a Fire Snake or a Thunder Goblin—masks, you understand—would step up to you…. [H]e might ring his dueling-gong and attack you then and there.” “I had no idea that people here were quite so irascible,” said Thissell in a subdued voice. Rolver shrugged and swung open the massive steel door into his office. “Certain acts may not be committed on the Concourse at Polypolis without incurring criticism.” [Rolver] went to a closet, brought forth a mask. “Here. Use this Moon Moth; it won’t get you in trouble.” Thissell unenthusiastically inspected the mask. It was constructed of mouse-colored fur; there was a tuft of hair at each side of the mouth-hole, a pair of featherlike antennae at the forehead. White lace flaps dangled beside the temples and under the eyes hung a series of red folds, creating an effect at once lugubrious and comic. Thissell asked, “Does this mask signify any degree of prestige?” “Not a great deal.” “After all, I’m Consular Representative,” said Thissell. “I represent the Home Planets, a hundred billion people—”

If the Home Planets want their representative to wear a Sea Dragon Conqueror mask, they’d better send out a Sea Dragon Conqueror type of man.” “I see,” said Thissell in a subdued voice. “Well, if I must . . .” Rolver politely averted his gaze while Thissell doffed the Sea Dragon Conqueror and slipped the more modest Moon Moth over his head.

Sorry to quote at such length, but it’s such a wonderful story! And we might meditate on what a much more masked culture would look like.

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