Face masks were quite literally a must-have in 2020. You can’t enter most businesses without one, and I hope you wouldn’t try to. However, masks don’t have to be a drab uniform. Many people use the face mask to add to their style. The use of masks as an accessory was around before this pandemic, but now it’s a more prevalent fashion option than ever before (here in Massachusetts). I wanted to know more about how masks came into existence and popularity. So, I surfed the World Wide Web to learn about the history of face masks, as well as their relevance today. And I interviewed local artist and mask-maker, Jo Nanajian (she/her), about her thoughts on masks as fashion accessories.
A brief summary of what I learned (on the internet) about masks:
Masks and other face-coverings have been a part of many different cultural practices across the world, dating back to the B.C.E. However, the layered masks that we wear today were invented just over a century ago, in the 1910–11 Manchurian plague outbreak. The invention was an elaboration of thinner (single-layer), surgical, face masks, which were worn only by doctors. The layered plague masks were intended to be worn by the entire population affected by the airborne plague, just like today.
Although the layered face mask was borne out of necessity, people who wore masks because of widespread illness or pollution in the past ended up finding an aesthetic function for them. The 2000s and 2010s were a recent example of this trend. Places such as (but not only) Japan, China, and South Korea faced public health crises, which required people to wear masks. Afterwards, masks became more of a cultural etiquette and fashion norm in East Asian countries (though wearing a mask when ill was already common practice in Japan and China). They appeared on runways during fashion weeks and they’re often worn by K-Pop stars. People use masks to protect others when they’re sick, to make a trip to the store in no makeup, and to walk around uninterrupted, in the same way that people use headphones.
During the pandemic in 2020, the U.S. government failed to utilize masks as a safety measure during COVID-19 (among countless other failings). Despite the availability of scientific research in support of face masks, only 38 of 50 states require people to wear masks in public spaces, putting essential workers, healthcare workers, and high-risk individuals further at risk. However, Massachusetts requires masks and has implemented a $300 fine for people who refuse to wear them, despite the government not providing them.
On the bright side, people still are wearing masks to protect themselves and their communities. According to a Vox poll, 72% of Americans believe masks should be required in all public places. Masks (or a lack thereof) have become a way to make a statement about yourself without ever opening your mouth. Maybe after COVID-19 is over, more people will choose to wear a mask out when they get sick to protect their neighbors. Or when they’re not sick, just because they think it looks cool.
Q & A with Jo Nanajian
Answers have been edited slightly for length
Jo is an artist living in Massachusetts. She paints and makes masks for her brand, Nanajian. During 2020, Jo sent (less elaborate) handmade masks to healthcare workers in the U.S. and sent part of the profits from her masks to a relief fund for the explosion in Beirut.
BOSTON HASSLE: Tell me a bit about yourself and your work as a designer.
JO NANAJIAN: Well, my name is Jo. I started doing the masks, ironically, one year before the pandemic was declared, which I think is so bizarre. But yeah, before the pandemic I was really involved in the scene. I used to be in Baltimore and go to DC a lot before I moved back to Boston. I felt like I was always at these shows, and I noticed a lot of the time performers would wear a mask. They had these really cool, punk-like, goth-like aesthetics, which was always an aesthetic that I’m really fond of. That’s just how I’ve always liked to dress and present myself.
So I was really attracted to the idea of the mask, and another inspiration is that I’m Middle Eastern. We have a lot of head-pieces and mouth-pieces that include jewels and gold dangles that are just really beautiful, and I was thinking of how I felt the black mask is really so boring and kinda wanted to infuse the two aesthetics. So originally, when I was making these, they were solely for performance artists, or in my mind that’s what they were for. Because I was like, instead of plain masks, let’s add some chains, and dangles and jewelry and everything, and just have this really nice performance piece.
BH: Who/what have been your aesthetic inspirations in 2020?
JN: I would say, going back to the idea of performers, there’s this one performer I really like. His name is Scarlxrd and before the pandemic I saw him at AFROPUNK and stuff. Again, he had an aesthetic that I was really into. But after that–you know when people are like “oh, who’s your favorite artist?” and you think of these traditional, classical, famous artists–for me, it’s people who surround me. So I get really inspired by my friends and certain Instagram influencers that I think have a cool appearance.
The masks became developed as [COVID-19] hit, and I felt like I was making more. It was like each mask was a dedication or a representation of people in my life. I look at them and say, “I look at you, and something about you just tells me ‘pearls,’ something about you tells me ‘pink,’” and so that is what the base of a lot of my inspirations are. My surroundings and the people I love. I love celebrities, but it’s really the people around you who give you the drive to push and create, and [who] keep you inspired.
BH: When you think about your masks as accessories, how do you hope someone will use them in an outfit?
JN: Y’know I love that, because it’s like, I hope someone would use [them] to amplify the style they already have. I think, when this pandemic happened, people were really upset about wearing them. Because it’s like, “Oh, I have to put this blue thing across my face.” Okay, well, it doesn’t have to be like that! Here is something that now is just a part of your outfit and it matches, and you feel good, you feel great! And you leave the house like that. So I hope that [my designs] help people to want to wear them and not be so turned off or like “ugh, I have to wear this.” Because I saw so many cute outfits with just the blue mask, and it doesn’t have to be like that!
BH: How do you incorporate masks into your personal style?
JN: I’ll wear a lot of jewelry, so it’s kinda like another earring or another necklace and it just matches everything. I remember before the pandemic, I had a lot of people make fun of me or question me [for wearing a mask], mainly people in the streets. It felt comfortable to me to wear them, even now. And not comfortable in the sense of safety, but comfortable like I kinda enjoyed [that] people didn’t really know what I looked like. I felt like it was just an addition to what I already had on and it completed it. It’s just funny now because all these people were laughing at me and it’s like “well, bitch, you’re wearing them too now!”
BH: Can you say more about that feeling of comfort from wearing a mask?
JN: I think I sometimes can–and this goes across the board with a lot of people–get some unwanted attention, and something about the mask just gave me comfort. One, before the pandemic it was a little more intimidating for you to wear it, like “why is this person wearing a mask, okay” and I kinda liked that because I didn’t want a lot of attention.
I liked that people didn’t know what I looked like. I also liked that it was different, it wasn’t a common thing to see. It made me feel protected and it made me feel as though it was pushing away certain possibilities or interactions that were honestly unwanted. I think a lot of the things have that effect. And in no means do I want to hide myself, but it brought me comfort.
BH: How have you noticed other people using your masks as an accessory?
JN: Every person I send a mask to, I always ask for a photo. All my clients wear [them] really well and it makes me super happy to see. Some people do photoshoots and post it online because they feel good, they wanna show it off. It’s really sweet. And other people wear their usual thing and just throw [the mask] on but, with all the stuff going on in the mask, if you’re just chilling and you throw it on, it’s the accessory that just brings all the drama right to your face. I feel like it almost completes the outfit.
It’s nice to see people wearing [my masks]. I do consider them art pieces rather than just face masks. And to know that your work is being used and not just sitting in a drawer somewhere collecting dust. So I do enjoy seeing my clients posts wearing it. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s yours and you do whatever you want with it. But as someone who makes them, it’s really nice to see.
I’m really about everyone’s aesthetic and everyone’s style. How they use a mask is whatever makes you feel beautiful, whatever makes you feel good. Again, I just like to see my masks being used in a way that makes an individual feel happy or comfortable. That’s really my goal with it.
BH: Are masks an accessory that you will continue to design or wear once they are no longer mandatory?
JN: Absolutely, yes. It was interesting because, separate from masks, my main form of work is fine art. I’m a painter. I first started [the masks] as a side-gig because I saw, again, a really great way to fuse two aesthetics that I love together. It was like a fun hobby, and then the pandemic hit and it became like a job to make them.
I definitely think that one, after the pandemic we should all keep wearing them. Like I don’t trust anyone personally, haha, but that’s just me. I also think that after the pandemic there’s going to be more of an appreciation for them, not just aesthetically, but in a health manner too. Regardless of whether [COVID-19] is over or not, I think both of [those reasons to wear masks] are gonna be a lot more normalized after this. Not to say that I would make them because I want to sell them.
The reason I started making them was ‘cause it hadn’t been done, it was rare. I mean I can’t help it, more and more ideas pop into my head. So I think until I get bored. Sometimes that happens, you work on a series and then you get bored of it. So until that happens, I’m not stopping.
Be sure to follow Jo on Instagram: @jo_nanajian
For more information on masks & safety, check out the CDC’s pages about masks.
Wishing everybody safe and happy 2021 🙂