People line up to purchase face masks in Bambang, Manila on January 30, 2020. Photo by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News
Culture Spotlight

OPINION: If face masks are the new normal, why are we acting like everything’s business as usual?

Is it a fashion statement? Is it a sign of the end times? Is it both? Here’s how the eruption of Taal and the coronavirus did a number on our collective psyche.
Jam Pascual | Feb 18 2020

January was a long month. 2020 took us into its thorny arms with the impending threat of World War 3, the Australian bush fires, the passing of Kobe Bryant, and a host of other catastrophic events that made Biblical apocrypha look plausible. 

And while we didn’t get a seven-headed beast rising up from out the sea, we did get something pretty close—the eruption of Taal and days of ashfall, and the coronavirus. That’s like two for the four horsemen of the apocalypse, if we’re still stretching the Revelation metaphor.

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These calamities prompted, well, widespread panic, and the harried procuring of face masks—specifically the N95 model, the kind you see on doctors and nurses on a normal day. The Mercury Drug near my place was small, so it wasn’t long lines I saw but an anxious throng of people pooling up at the counter as I queued up. Owning this commodity was life or death. I mean, we're talking about the unofficial successor of SARS, and a condition in which microscopic volcanic glass shreds your lungs up from the inside. 

Photo from official website of Airinium

I had heard stories of doomsday opportunists buying masks in bulk and reselling them for exorbitant prices, taking advantage of shortages they themselves caused. But it wasn’t long until everybody got a face mask and, despite the dystopic mood that plagued (pun tragically intended) our day-to-day lives, we carried on, faces covered up and fears slightly assuaged.

And then it became... a look. It seemed as though the face of the city had changed, and the N95 became a wardrobe staple. The sight of crowds suddenly appeared a little unfamiliar with noses and mouths obscured. Surgical masks became neutral pieces, compatible with business formal and smart casual. It wasn’t long before I started seeing custom face masks in different colors, shapes and prints, some even with tastefully placed filters. Look at this goddamned Instagram post of a face mask hooked up to a mason jar with leaves in it.

A friend told me he’d go to the office and see people comparing face masks. His was a model from Airinium, a face mask company designed to keep you respitorally healthy in any urban environment, whose website describes its product as one that offers a “personalized fit for optimal comfort and with such sleek design that it will enhance your everyday outfit.” Masks come in quartz grey, onyx black, pearl pink, and other designs.

"Warcore" is a term coined by VOGUE to describe a fashion movement inspired by the aesthetics of armed combat. You'll know it when you see it: military fatigues, assault vests, glossy black boots designed for both runway-rocking and curbstomping coppers. While sartorial items like camo pants and wearing your Doc Martens to protests isn't new, warcore is different. According to Mr Porter, "'Warcore' is something that’s come off the back of the utilitarian trend that’s been doing the rounds, but is a bit more aggressive. What this means is super-thick, anti-stab fabric, waistcoats in the style of bulletproof flak jackets, buckled belts and sportswear layered over more sportswear."

A friend told me he’d go to the office and see people comparing face masks. His was a model from Airinium

The proliferation of face masks seems to fall squarely into the trend of warcore. While we've seen the item in non-conflict settings—for example, Kpop stars hiding their faces when they show up at the airport—the face mask constantly shows up on our feeds, in a news cycle that perpetually reports violence on a global scale. Hong Kong protestors wear face masks to defend against gas attacks and the scrutinizing eye of a growing surveillance state. Mass movements over the last decade have been encapsulated in at least one picture of a triumphant rioter with a bandana over their face.

Art by Chris Clemente

It’s comforting though that warcore seems to take on a more anti-authoritarian edge—its proponents looking more like Banksy caricatures than fascist pigs. Entertain the thought, though. Jawnz lords stepping up to the plate when the class war reaches its boiling point, throwing molotov cocktails at the boys in blue while donning Virgil Ablohs.

But this isn’t really about warcore. My gripe is not high fashion's tendency to take the look of the streets and luxify it for haute couture consumption. That's a whole different conversation. We can't stop people from beautifying things we're already wearing for specifically utilitarian purposes. There is an argument for letting humans be human, and allowing them to find art and beauty in disaster. As VOGUE themselves put it: “If fashion people are quick to adopt a trend or idea, the best we can hope is that this form of visual resistance lines up with actual resistance, actual political change. The clothes won’t protect us and our freedoms, but the people inside them might."

We can't stop people from beautifying things we're already wearing for specifically utilitarian purposes. There is an argument for letting humans be human, and allowing them to find art and beauty in disaster. 

And as much as I'd like to posture disdain at how capitalism commodifies our anxieties, I really freaking want an Airinium mask. That shit looks fly as hell, and I too am enchanted by the idea of looking like a decked-out badass in a riot, even though a record of perfect behavior in school leaves me completely unprepared for the event I tussle with a trained law enforcer.

Photograph from Airinum's Facebook page

What actually stresses me out is the omnipresence of the commodity, warcore aside. The face mask has, whether we notice it or not, shifted the way we go about our day-to-day affairs. There are times when I've gone out while wearing a face mask to catch up with an old friend, deadset on battling loneliness while suiting up for invisible contagions. For a period of a couple of weeks, my IG stories were chock full of the gear, people posting face mask selfies while making peace signs. I'm sure that shit is normal in South Korea, especially for bracing against the winter season's dry winds, but it ain't normal here. What used to be normal for motorcycle drivers and medical attendants became a wardrobe staple for the zeitgeist.

I look at the face of the city and its nose and mouth are erased. All I see are eyes—never shifty or panicked, but just resigned to the way of things. It's like a dystopian sci-fi movie, the kind where the hoi polloi lug around ramshackle cyborg prosthetics while doing normal shit like bargaining at the neon-lit wet market. Or like, a dieselpunk film, where Mad Max types sport war paint while doing non-desert raid related activities.

What I mean to say is, there is a clear dissonance between how our dystopia looks and how we feel about how it looks. I would feel more comfortable and sane if we, the general populace, were more aware of the dystopic quality of the present since we're already wearing its threads. And by that I don't mean using our coronavirus hysteria as an excuse to stoke anti-Chinese sentiments. I mean, we shouldn't be going to work. I mean, we shouldn't be acting like our days must go on as usual despite these disasters. The eruption of Taal and the spread of the coronavirus came at us full swing in that single hellish month and messed up our collective psyche—shouldn’t we be more anxious? 

And even though these events are being managed in varying degrees of efficacy, shouldn’t we be acting more like death is around the corner, what with all the other terrible shit happening in the world everyday? I come to work looking like I'm on the run from Big Brother, and sit down to discuss content output. Like this article. Sometimes, that distorted sense of (ab)normalcy is easy to take. Sometimes, it's hard to breathe.