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Fashion Brands Propel The Rise Of The Designer Mask


One of the most visible signs of our new normal are masks. In some parts of the country, face masks are just as essential as shoes when you leave the house. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money explore the rise of the face mask.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Valerie Steele is a historian of fashion in New York. She's also the director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. We called Valerie to ask her about masks - the masks that people have been increasingly wearing since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

VALERIE STEELE: The idea of masks as personal protective technology, like medical masks, that's something that goes back to the end of the 19th century, where in Europe, surgeons realized that they could help prevent germs and bacteria from their mouth entering into people's wounds.

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: As the coronavirus pandemic tragically lingers on, a lot of people in the U.S. are going to continue to wear masks out in public. As time does go on, will more people start thinking of masks as just part of what they wear every day, a part of their outfit? Valerie says that has happened before in other parts of the world when they had to deal with earlier outbreaks of contagious diseases.

STEELE: With a variety of pandemics like SARS and MERS over the past 15 years or so, people in Hong Kong, China and Japan started increasingly to wear masks to protect themselves but also to protect the people around them. And not only was mask wearing ubiquitous, this is a part of the world where people are very interested in fashion. And so quite quickly, you also saw fashion masks being worn.

GARCIA: Now, it's early in the trend. But Valerie does suspect that something like this is also happening now in the U.S. and Europe as a response to coronavirus. But there is more to this story than just business and fashion. Right now, for example, wearing a mask has become part of a culture war here in the U.S.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, in some parts of the country, people are protesting against being ordered to wear a mask. The protesters say they are trying to protect their personal freedom.

GARCIA: Yeah, and the advocates of wearing masks are saying that it's about science. They point to evidence showing that if you wear a mask, there is less of a chance that you'll infect other people if you have coronavirus.

VANEK SMITH: Valerie says for her, wearing a mask can send a message of solidarity.

STEELE: I think that this idea of fashionizing masks is a good way to normalize them and to say that you don't need to be scared. You just need to be part of this. We're all in it together.

GARCIA: And a bunch of fashion designers and other companies have already pivoted to selling more masks with differing styles and designs. Masks from companies like rag & bone, Tanya Taylor, Madewell, they're all on Vogue's new list of the 92 most stylish masks that you can buy now. There's even a, which will send you a new mask each month for $9.99 a month.



VANEK SMITH: That's - no. The monthly thing's out of control.

GARCIA: It's there.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Mask club.

GARCIA: It exists (laughter). For a lot of us, masks are probably going to remain an item that we need, at least in the short term. And so what fashion designers and manufacturers are doing is to try to ensure we can also end up getting them in a style that we want.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SPRING EVENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 13, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web introduction to this report misstated Valerie Steele's first name as Victoria.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
Cardiff Garcia is a co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money podcast, along with Stacey Vanek Smith. He joined NPR in November 2017.