It first emerged as a sign — on faces in airports, at hospitals, on the streets — that this virus was not to be taken lightly.
In the space of a year, the mask sold out; set off scientific debates; became a shield; got sucked into politics; saved small businesses; staved off awkward social encounters and some (but not all) forms of harassment. It appeared at weddings and funerals, on red carpets and the presidential inauguration, and in the Super Bowl halftime show. Masks were everywhere.
Now, after 14 months of reliance on the mask for protection, its twilight appears to be in sight in certain parts of the world. In late April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors unless they are in crowds. Already, the CDC had said that small groups of fully vaccinated people — more than 1.2 billion doses have been administered worldwide — could safely gather indoors unmasked.
As bare faces become more common, what will become of masks? Some people remain uncertain about giving them up just yet, either because they are awaiting vaccination or holding on to fears — of infection, judgment by others for not wearing a mask, or both. (And, masks are still required in most indoor settings.) People who have stopped wearing them daily may still keep their masks; that way when flu season or another pandemic arrives, they’ll be prepared. Clearly, however — judging by the litter on city sidewalks and in parks — many are tossing them.
But designers, DIY-ers, curators and environmentalists have plenty of other ideas, aimed at memorializing and reinvigorating the abundant artifacts of our pandemic year.
From Fashion to ‘Trashion’
Early on in the pandemic, clothing and accessory designers pivoted to mask making as demand for face coverings reached a fever pitch.
Baggu, a company known for its reusable totes, introduced its line of masks in the spring; on the first day of sales, it sold 10,000 of them, the company said. Now, it is slowing — but not ceasing — its mask production.
“I think the pandemic has shifted perceptions regarding mask usage in North America,” said Dan Small, the head of partnerships at Baggu. “We feel like there will be a niche role for masks, even as we begin to move ourselves out of the pandemic.”
Fashion designer Christian Siriano said his company produced nearly 3 million masks. It was key, he noted, that the masks be reusable. “I think the amount of disposable product out there right now is unbelievable,” he said.
Students, too, contributed to the effort. Hannah Conradt, a senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology, had been sketching a wedding dress for a class project when the pandemic hit. “I lost all motivation to make a dress no one would wear,” Conradt said. “It felt so frivolous.”
So she started making masks from fabric scraps, which she shared with friends, family and her mail carrier. (“I’m a fast sewer,” she said.) When she returned to the wedding dress design, she added a very 2020 twist: a skirt formed by 50 masks on a cage crinoline base, which could be removed and worn if needed.
Now, in response to the surge in mask waste, many designers and artists are finding their own ways to upcycle cloth and single-use masks.
Clarisse Merlet, an architect and the CEO of the Parisian company FabBRICK, has found a way to upcycle textiles, including fabric masks, into colorful, decorative bricks that can be used to create furniture, lamps, acoustic panels and wall partitions. “I never imagined that I would use masks in my designs,” Merlet said.
Shanan Campanaro, the founder of the textile design studio Eskayel in New York, has a textile recycling bin that’s full of masks to be donated. “Mask waste is a huge concern,” Campanaro said. “I constantly see them scattered on the streets and find myself getting frustrated that they don’t make it in the trash.”
Discarded masks are also making their way into oceans and waterways. Alison Jones, a program coordinator for Clean Ocean Action, said volunteers collected 680 face masks on New York and New Jersey beaches in October 2020. Lynn Adams, the president of the Pacific Beach Coalition in California, said volunteers report an average of 717 masks and gloves each month. “This count is a very small percentage of what is actually out there,” she said.
Marina DeBris, an artist in Sydney, has found close to 300 face masks on beaches since last spring. She has incorporated them into wearable “trashion” outfits and installations like her “Inconvenience Store,” which is full of repackaged items she collected from beaches. “It’s about trying to continuously fight problems,” she said of her work.
Poramit Thantapalit, an artist in New Jersey, started incorporating masks into his wearable sculptures and installations last year. Previously, he has worked with plastic bottles, egg cartons and other recycled goods. “I try to save the environment and get zero waste,” he said.
Haneul Kim, a designer in Seoul, South Korea, discovered a way to melt used face masks together at high temperatures to create colorful, stackable plastic stools. He said it takes about 1,500 masks to make one chair, and he has made 50 so far. (For those doing the math, that’s 75,000 face masks.)
“Ultimately, I hope the world comes to where I run out of masks to work on, and the coronavirus pandemic stops,” Kim said.
DIY-ing and Donating
There are other, more accessible ways to combat the problem. DIY makers have turned old cloth masks into all sorts of things, including chin rests for violins and doll clothes.
Kristina Wong, a performance artist in Los Angeles and the founder of the Auntie Sewing Squad, whose volunteers have been sewing face masks throughout the pandemic, said they are now starting to think about how to repurpose the face coverings. One volunteer fashioned some into bow ties for her cat, Alex.
Joy Cho, a designer in Los Angeles and the founder of the lifestyle brand Oh Joy!, has plans to turn her family’s worn out masks into patches for clothes. “What better way to use your old fabric masks — to give new life to a pair of jeans or a jacket,” she said.
Miranda Bennett, a designer and the owner of Miranda Bennett Studio in Austin, Texas, plans to wash and repurpose some of her old masks as lavender sachets for closets or lingerie drawers. She sees these creative projects as a way of reframing the mask — “a symbol of being apart and isolation” — as something new.
Cat Pfingst, a senior fashion design student at Drexel University, had been thinking of turning her DIY masks into wristlets and realized they would be the perfect small makeup bags for lipstick or bobby pins. (She was inspired, in part, by a woman at her hair salon who said she couldn’t wait to wear her signature red lipstick again.)
“To me, masks will sort of be the relics of this strange moment in time,” she said.
Breaking News Alerts
There’s good reason to hold on to a few face masks, even as the vaccinated population grows. “Some people have taken mask wearing beyond protection and now choose to wear them based on style,” Siriano said.
And, many epidemiologists say that the next pandemic isn’t a matter of if, but when. “Pick your top masks and don’t throw them away,” Bennett said. “Don’t put them in landfills.”
The rest you can give away. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the New-York Historical Society, archivists have been collecting pandemic objects like masks for future exhibits and are still accepting donations.
“We want to capture what it was like to live through this pandemic so future generations can understand it,” said Margi Hofer, the museum director at the New-York Historical Society. So far, she said, the museum has acquired some “incredibly resourceful and very New York” masks from local artists and Hofer’s “all-time favorite”: a penguin-print mask donated by Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Clean masks can also be dropped off at local textile recycling sites in many cities, where they will be redistributed or turned into new materials.
“We have an opportunity to do something meaningful,” Bennett said. “It’s a chance to see a silver lining, even in these masks.”
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