We live in unprecedented times. With the coronavirus epidemic creating new everyday norms and rituals, protective masks have become an accessory of necessity, a practicality to protect our health-and this of others. Go past the clinical needs, though, and you’ll see a new field of fashion antagonism rising, that of the eponymous, the ‘designer mask’.
Take for example much-hyped street fashion brand Off-White. As part of the S/S ’20 collection, Virgil Abloh has released eight new face masks in a number of designs following the brand’s usual street style-meets-apocalypse aesthetics. The unexpected here isn’t the style but the price of the masks – both in the sale and resale market.
Business Insider reports on the resale phenomenon: “StockX, the resale marketplace best known as a destination for sneakers and streetwear, is selling a bevy of masks from the buzzy fashion brand Off-White’s 2019 collections, with some bids coming in at more than $200. One such design, which in previous months sold for an average of $80, just sold for $211 on the site.” In her recent New York Times article Vanessa Friedman reports that , according to Edited, the digital retail tracking service, there has been an almost 40 percent increase in the number of masks offered by companies in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the end of 2019.
Is a mask of 200 protecting us more than one of 20? Probably not. But perhaps this is not even the right question to ask. When masks migrate into the world of fashion they become something else. They become symbols of not just health or social concern, but of identity, self-expression amidst chaos. Self-expression that oftentimes is not that democratic and inclusive as it claims to be. Today, the ‘designer’ mask is the new symbol of conspicuous consumption much like a Burberry bag and a logoed Gucci T-shirt.
‘Spending of money on and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power—of the income or of the accumulated wealth of the buyer’ is the stereotypical description of conspicuous consumption. The Off-White mask buyers invest just on this public display of economic power to either attain or maintain a given social status, most often when they don’t actually have it. It’s their fantasy world where they can be what their accessories signify they are. It’s their own “philosophy of futility”.
In that context, “conspicuous consumption” hides a true behavioral addiction, an impulsive narcissistic behavior, or perhaps both. These are the exact psychological conditions induced by today’s consumerism—the urge for the gratification of hedonic expectations- as soon as possible. You can get a more accurate description of the current consumer attitude than this, and overpriced masks are just the tip of the iceberg.
The actual need is to wear a mask, any type of clinically proven, aesthetically pleasing protecting mask. Still, when you need your accessories to shout your class, money of fashion-status, this won’t satisfy you. And that is the pathogenesis of modern fashion, in a nutshell.