The Great Unmasking

The Great Unmasking

Fashion is essentially about putting something on. Now the pandemic compels us to take it off—waste and pretense too—while wearing a medical mask 

The acerbic creator, couturier, photographer, caricaturist Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld, at the helm of luxury brands Chanel and Fendi for many decades, who died last year was famous, also, for “Karlisms”. Consider this: “I am like a caricature of myself, and I like that. It is like a mask. And for me the Carnival of Venice lasts all year long,” said Lagerfeld of the black jeans, black jacket, high collared white shirts, powdered ponytail, black finger gloves and dark glasses look.

He may well have been speaking of fashion itself.

Fashion has always been about “donning” something—power, wealth, status, signature, gender, choice, tribal, regional or geographical affinity, seasonal style…. Taking something off your body or out of your wardrobe suggests a discarding. Until the next masque, garment, style comes on; the intermediary stage is a blank space for the spectator. For nakedness too is worn with intent in fashion.

In India, for instance, fashion works to mask and insulate its consumers from the poverty and destitution of “others” that surround them. At a rich wedding, fashion is the currency of wealth and conspicuous consumption: its raison d’ être is differentiation. At a fashion week, it is about design-led distinction. In other situations, it is about privilege. It marks the body as special even unique. The fashionable person is seen both as progressive and political, someone who uses, to effect, the dynamic between her clothes, herself and the society.

Conversely, the process works in an opposite direction as fashion is also emblematic of arrogance and neglect of certain realities and people, or cruelty to animals. It can be exploitative: a snatcher of human rights of some to make the production of pretty goods possible for others.


Photo: Noah Seelam / AFP

A passenger wearing a face mask, amid concerns over the spread of COVID-19, at a railway station in Secunderabad, March 2020.

Now suddenly it is this last contention—neglect, utter neglect, of people and the planet—that resonates the most in this moment. The Covid-19 battle has thrust forward a reflection on the real “value” of growth and business, of glamour and gimmick, of style, spectacle and distinction. The viral nature itself, so to say, of fashion is being viewed as unhealthy.

We are living through an unmasking. Those in fashion industries are peculiarly exposed to this irony. How much should we have of it, how should we make it, how should we sell it, how much should we discard? These questions have been asked in the last few years but now they are urgent.

The mask then has become the poster product of fashion’s long-awaited unmasking.


Photo: John Wessels / AFP

Ebola health workers at an MSF (Doctors Without Borders) supported Ebola Treatment Centre (ETC) in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018.

A Detour

So far, masks mostly stood for modern medicine in our lifetimes. The right thing for a doctor or a medical caregiver to don. As tools in the never-ending fight against infectious diseases. A “must-wear” in medicine inspired films and tele series like Grey’s Anatomy or the Contagion. An “Asia thing” because of SARS, swine flu, air pollution, foul smelling cities. An “Africa thing” because of Ebola. “A Hong Kong thing”, whether as symbols of ever escalating protests for democracy or as health safeguards against zoonotic viruses.

When they transmitted into fashion, they began as strong statements. You could wear them for form or for function but they would still make a point. Chinese designer Masha Ma showed Swarovski studded masks for her Spring Summer collection way back in Paris in 2015. These were air pollution masks but made like couture by a designer who came from a country battling severe pollution. Masks became a legit part of China fashion since the middle of the last decade. More than five years back Italian luxury e-commerce retailer Yoox began selling breathing masks by Chinese designers like Qiu Hao, Xander Zhou and Sankuanz on Yooxygen, the eco-friendly section of its platform. The item had transmitted first as an idea from reality to fashion and then from fashion to utility.



A Vogmask design made in collaboration with Manish Arora in 2016.

In India, masks arrived on the fashion ramp as symbols. Designer Rajesh Pratap used them more than once for his runway presentations to hold up democratic expression as did Narendra Kumar once to protest against communal rioting in Mumbai. These were not intended as “fashionable” accessories to wear to work or party but as storytelling devices. Manish Arora though made them utilitarian with his collaboration with Vogmask (made of microfibre to filter out most particulate matter) in 2016. Delhi’s notorious, toxic air pollution found fashion relief with Arora’s interpretations in zany prints like butterfly, paisley and star prints in bright, strong colours.


Photo: Francois Guillot / AFP

A Marine Serre ensemble from her Fall-Winter 2019/2020 Ready-to-Wear collection.

When Gucci made a bespoke face mask for Billie Eilish that she wore this January at the Grammys, it was again a statement about the body politic. But, Karl Lagerfeld masks, both face size or miniature collectibles that you could buy at museums or stylishly curated stores in artistic materials (even when he was alive) were like idiosyncratic souvenirs recapturing the irreverence of the designer. They stood for a fashion-philosophic “Karlism”. French designer Marine Serre underlined that fashion is first of the moment with her designer masks at Paris Fashion Week this February. She did tell the media though that her collaboration with Airnum to manufacture air quality suitable masks had begun way before the Coronavirus crisis.


Joaquin Phoenix in a still from the film ‘Joker’.

The Masked Story Teller

“Masking” has been a way of telling the most potent stories through a “painted” face. The masked character is the narrator-in-chief, the puppeteer as well as the protagonist. If Spiderman was our rescue hero and Wonder Woman brought feminism to Marvel Inc, Joaquin Phoenix as the much-applauded Joker unmasked the visceral pain of mental illness. Kathakali, the classical Indian dance form of Kerala that uses elaborate and vivid makeup and costume and hyper real face masks derives its name from storytelling: Katha (story), Kali (for kala that means art or performance). The masks of Assam, also known as mukhas are worn in theatrical and dance renditions that narrate stories of tribal folklore, tradition and myth.

Historically and anthropologically, the mask is a narrator device. From the scary ones worn during Halloween or those to protest against the Union Carbide related Bhopal gas tragedy, they say “Look At Me and Unmask My Truth, My Story”.

We Have All Been Unmasked

Now that all of us across the world look the same, deeply puzzled and muzzled behind the “disposable, particulate, respirator”, the sterile Coronavirus mask (or the N95 etc), what the mask says must be heeded to.


‘The Way of the Masks’ by Claude Levi-Strauss.

It is time to explore the relationship, as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, author of the The Way of the Masks said of the dialogue between the mask and the face that wears it. In this case, we must reassess the relationship fashion has with those who buy and wear it. As must the relationship of fashion businesses with the environment and the people who make it, be put under microscopic lens.

In this great unmasking, in the revelations that companies, designers, strategists, creative heads, marketing wizards, finance bosses and studio hands will have through the lockdown, lies fashion’s future.

If the It item of the moment, the lasting visual image of Spring/Summer 2020, of all of us as we wade through the wreckage of the pandemic, is indeed the “mask”, let fashion admit to the criticality of unmasking its ways and means. To search for value behind the masks of prettiness and profit.

Else, it would be an irony to include the mask in the designer’s mood board. To create and sell stylised “designer masks” at the next fashion week or for the next round of shopping when fashion rebounds from its quarantine.


Banner: Performers wearing Karl Lagerfeld masks during the launch of the Karl Lagerfeld + ModelCo collaborative makeup line in Paris, May 2018.

Image courtesy: Facebook/karllagerfeld