The history of American fashion trends is bedecked with some strange entries. The summer of love in 1969 saw hippies storm Bethel, New York bedecked in bell-bottoms, shag fringed vests and beaded headbands. Shoulder pads first hit their stride in the 1980s, when designs like Armani, Anne Klein and Ralph Lauren went all-in on the power suit and American women aspired to dress like Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” on the job.
And while it may initially seem that the strangest choices in fashion history were made by our forebears in the long-ago past, one need only glance briefly back at the early 2000s to witness the explosion of Von Dutch trucker hats and UGG boots, which passed as an icon of style among the nation’s young, rich and well-connected.
But in the last few weeks, the U.S. may have seen the most unexpected trend in its fashion history, if not the strangest. The hottest accessory of summer 2020?
A face mask.
Yes, this summer it seems that every brand is fashion is looking to jump on the face masks bandwagon, with brands like Gap, Everland, Disney, Brooks Brothers, Rent the Runway, Madewell and some 49 others (according to USA Today’s count) already offering their own in-house-created facial coverings. Some are bright and vibrant, some are relatively plain and staid, while others feature popular sports teams or Yoda. All are either already on the market or are available for pre-order and delivery over the next few weeks.
So why are brands leaping all over masks, and driving them – via the spirit of competition – to become the summer’s unexpected trendiest item?
The Accessory Everyone Must Have – Literally
As the nation is beginning its reopening process, most states are requiring the use of facial coverings in order for citizens to mingle freely in the physical world – particularly when indoors with people they don’t know. Those requirements are based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC’s) recommendation that people wear a cloth face covering to slow the spread of the virus while in public.
So consumers who are hoping to go back to work, shop in a store, eat in a restaurant or otherwise socially convene are more likely than not going to need face masks.
And most consumers who are not already employed as medical professionals are unlikely to simply have a mask lying around the house. Outside of various parts of Southeast Asia, where masks were somewhat culturally common even before the global health pandemic, mask-wearing in public (outside of Halloween) is typically very uncommon.
So heading into summer, various fashion brands were faced with an opportunity to provide an accessory that anyone leaving their house would need – and few had lying around.
Moreover, many brands, when asked about the decision to supply masks, spoke of a desire to contribute to the public good – since for some Americans, the idea of wearing a mask while out in public is an extremely hard sell. The reasons vary, among them that masks are uncomfortable to wear and inconvenient to carry around. But mostly, as Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, a professor of communication at Michigan State University, told NBC News, after living under social distancing requirements for several months, few people are in the mood to take more orders.
"In general, people do not like to be told what to do,” she said.
Brands that are rolling out stylish, nice-looking masks believe they can help people get over their resistance by moving masks out of the arena of something they are forced to wear and into the arena of a cool way to express themselves.
“Anything we can do to celebrate and destigmatize the wearing of facemasks – either by making them more fashionable or more fun – the more we incentivize and normalize adoption,” said Jason Musante, global chief creative officer at retail manufacturing support firm Huge, which is currently working with clients to roll out lines of “fun and fashionable face-coverings,” as reported by Ad Age. “The more we embrace this new normal, the more lives we'll save.”
And, perhaps, a few apparel businesses along the line.
Keeping the Consumer Connection Alive
We have no reason to doubt the various retailers’ public-minded intentions in trying to get more Americans on board with mask-wearing by making it less an order from public health officials and more a means to express personal style – but it seems worth mentioning that after several weeks of estrangement, apparel brands are desperately looking for ways to reestablish a relationship with their erstwhile consumers.
Americans have stopped wearing pants – or at least they have stopped buying them. Recent data released by Walmart indicates that while consumers have continued to purchase new shirts during the pandemic, the fact that they are now only encountering their co-workers from the waist up on Zoom calls have sent pants sales plummeting during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, pajama sales have also been fairly solid.
And the plummeting pants sales point to the bigger problem in apparel retail as of late, according to PYMNTS consumer surveys: On the whole, apparel shopping has lost a lot of its appeal for people working from home. Consumers have been stocking up on toilet paper, household goods and bread – but being stylishly dressed has fallen out of focus for most Americans, and accessory and apparel sales had fallen by over 50 percent by the end of Q1 2020.
Masks present apparel brands with a chance to sell customers something they actually need – and perhaps while they are buying that essential accessory, they might be persuaded to buy the matching outfit. And even if buying a mask may not prompt that consumer to make a new apparel purchase, it also presents a branding opportunity to persuade other shoppers to come take a look. Various firms, according to Ad Age, have taken their mask offerings to the next level by artfully placing their brand names or logos directly on the masks, and by working with licensing companies to design custom-branded masks for consumers to collect.
Will it work? Arguably, it’s already working – most consumers who attempt to buy a mask on Gap.com, Nordstrom.com or Disney.com as of this weekend will be met with sellout notices and delivery delays of a few weeks. For the handful of consumers who are refusing to wear masks, it seems a greater volume are adopting the practice – and are trying to figure out the best way to look cool while doing so.
Unfortunately, Americans may be behind in that effort. According to a recent opinion piece in the Economist, the world’s most fashionable people – the French – have already mastered the art of mask styling. Yes, the people who first figured out over 1,000 ways to tie a scarf, according to the experts, have settled on mask stylings that manage to be sleek, urbane and sophisticated while “looking effortlessly cool.”
That could be helpful for brands trying to convince those last few American holdouts to get into the mask-wearing trend. They may not be willing to wear them simply because they are told to do so – but a chance to prove they can do it better than the French? In that case, mask-wearing might not just be a boon to public health or a hot trend to follow – it could arguably be considered a matter of patriotic duty.