Fashion’s Take on COVID-19

Photo Credit: Anthony OyerPhoto Credit: Anthony Oyer
Since the start of COVID-19, masks have evolved from paper to durable cloth to silks and satins, cottons, and high-performance innovative fabrics. They're fundamental to getting dressed and being out in public. COVID-19 has ushered in a new normal. In the new normal we disinfect our groceries before putting them away, bump elbows instead of shaking hands, and, to protect those we love, wear masks in public. Multi-layer facial coverings have become a necessary part of our wardrobe and have spawned a new generation of creative output in the fashion industry. Masks have become more than a barrier to infection. Now, they’re the newest way to show your personality in public.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve seen masks evolve from a paper material to durable cloth to silks and satins, cottons, and high-performance innovative fabrics. They have become fundamental to getting dressed and being out in public. As Fashion Department Chair Colbey Reid noted, “I am struck by how much masks are like underwear. Masks are a visible foundation garment, and today we’re seeing about as much variety in style and fabric as we see in underwear. Maybe more, since there’s not a lot of basic design freedom in the shape of underwear.” Colbey goes on to say that we put a lot of our personal style and personality into choosing foundational garments that are usually invisible to others. Good foundational garments not only need to look good, but need to make us feel a certain way. And it’s the same with protective COVID masks, which allow other people learn a little bit about our identity and preferences through the designs we showcase. “I think as people return to a semblance of public life, people are going to want a full wardrobe of masks,” Colbey adds.

Masks will be a hot topic among the Fashion Department’s courses this summer and fall semesters. Associate Professor Justin LeBlanc taught a summer studio named Accessible Mask Workshop alongside American Sign Language Chair Peter Cook. The goal of the workshop is to develop and propose mask prototypes that will be accessible and beneficial for not only the deaf community, but also for those who depend on facial expressions/lip-reading as a mode of communication. LeBlanc will also be teaching fashion problem solving courses this fall where students can address different topics that need to be addressed in fashion. Topics will range from all-inclusive design, accessibility wear, and much more.

Personal protective equipment (PPE) has always been a part of the Fashion Department’s curriculum. Columbia’s Approaches and Process in Fashion Design class last fall collaborated with several other institutions, in a project with Medline (a PPE company) to redesign masks, surgical and patient robes, and gloves. Making PPE into a fashion statement is something that the Columbia community is well accustomed to working on and thinking about how to make those more effective, more efficient, better compliant, or user-friendly.  

The Columbia community has already joined together to make masks during the COVID-19 epidemic. In April, Columbia launched #ColumbiaMakesMasks, an initiative with the goal of making 2,000 cotton covers for N95 masks to prolong the usable life of personal protective equipment for healthcare providers responding to the COVID-19 crisis. Fashion Studies major Maria Varela partnered with the Fashion Studies department to mail mask-making kits to students interested in participating in the initiative. As part of the initiative, Varela created a mask and sold the design to Columbia College. For those who are interested in selling their own mask design LeBlanc recommends, “Understand your mask niche, understand who you are designing for as those people will be the one who will buy the mask. We live in a digital age and it is crucial that the designers know how to use their social media tools to market to a larger community.”

Designers have already started to show their spring, summer and fall looks pictured with masks and protective head gear. This isn’t the first time fashion has integrated protective equipment into fashion statements. Designers have also incorporated bulletproof vests into their collections. Colbey predicts that Columbia’s trend savvy students and faculty will be styling PPE in their collections. A number of Columbia students own street wear brands, and Colbey says Colbey says streetwear has a tradition of using protective equipment to make political and fashion statements.

Moving forward, Colbey predicts that fashion will continue to push the boundaries of innovation when it comes to merging function with ornamental style. Perhaps we will see masks that double as veils or fascinators. Perhaps we will see something entirely new. But with all of the uncertainty in the world right now, one thing is sure: as the definition of normalcy changes during the pandemic, fashion will play a major role in a global move to accept and normalize our current circumstances.


Sarah Borchardt
Communications Manager