Danielle Sprecher, Andrew Groves
Westminster Menswear Archive
The exhibition Undercover. From Necessity to Luxury: The Evolution of Face Coverings During COVID-19 exploredhow face coverings evolved from being a functional PPE object in short supply to becoming an everyday object worn by millions. It opened on 11 May 2021, one year from when the U.K. government first advised people to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces.
Undercover featured 52 face masks produced between March 2020 and March 2021. The chronological arrangement showed how these everyday products evolved from their medical origins to become highly desirable fashion accessories manufactured by companies ranging from BoohooMAN to Louis Vuitton.
In March 2020, several menswear brands began to pivot their production to respond to a developing medical emergency and adapt their processes to make medical-grade PPE scrubs for health workers. Many companies were at first hesitant to create face coverings as a consumer product. Masks were a new product category for nearly all of these manufacturers and brands, and most of them had no prior expertise designing or making them. They also had to navigate the legal ramifications of production and decide whether they wanted to be associated so explicitly with the pandemic. However, it was not long before manufacturers began producing face masks for their customers.
From a curatorial standpoint, the exhibition presented us with several challenges. Given the new information surrounding COVID-19 in March 2020 and the possibility of contaminated face coverings, we decided only to collect new face coverings. Rapid response collecting meant we faced the uncertainty of knowing what objects would be produced and how to access them, given that most shops were shut. Additionally, almost all websites banned the reselling of face coverings, which made it challenging to acquire objects produced at the beginning of COVID-19 in the U.K. that had become unavailable. Finally, as the year proceeded, the public’s reaction to masks became more polarised and politicised, so we had to continuously re-evaluate the public mood for an exhibition and our appropriate response.
The exhibition’s design was inspired by the colours, fonts, and graphics used on conventional personal protective equipment (PPE) mask packaging. This pseudo-medical approach enabled us to explore how this visual language can make consumers feel safe and reassured when viewing non-PPE objects. The exhibition also drew on the visual language used by many media outlets and retailers in the previous year to display face coverings online. Since all the artefacts were less than a year old and many were still on sale online, we wanted the exhibition to blur the boundary between editorial and exhibition. As we were not displaying the products themselves, but rather images of them, we adopted the digital modification techniques used on fashion editorial to make them look as ‘perfect’ as possible.
The exhibition is now a permanent time capsule chronicling the fashion industry’s response to COVID-19. We intend to return to it in ten years to reflect and re-evaluate the significance of these objects.
BoohooMAN had previously sold face masks as part of their menswear range in 2019, mirroring a trend popularised by Off-White. However, when this skeleton mask was released in April 2020, they were accused of profiting at a time when the NHS was experiencing a PPE shortage and withdrew the masks from sale.
This mask is not from the streetwear brand Obey, but an Etsy seller inspired by John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, where the ruling class manipulate people through subliminal messages. The film’s message struck a chord with consumers who bought these masks to express their objection to wearing a face covering.
One of the fashion industry’s first coordinated responses was the British Fashion Council’s Great British Designer Face Coverings. Two packs were available, one featuring Liam Hodges, Julien Macdonald and Rixo, the other RÆBURN, Mulberry and Halpern. In an independent Which? Best Buy lab survey, the face coverings came second overall.
In April 2020, Louis Vuitton pivoted their worldwide production to produce face masks, which they distributed for free to healthcare workers, retirement homes, and organisations most seriously impacted by COVID-19. In November 2020, Louis Vuitton released their elevated retail face covering with a monogram bandana within a drawstring pouch and sold for £350.