French designer Marine Serre has been using masks in her collections since her catwalk debut in 2018, yet this season they took on a whole new meaning. In late February, Serre showed masks in chic houndstooth and the label's signature crescent moon print, seemingly intended for street style rather than fending off germs.
But as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, their purpose transformed from fashionable to functional, as many areas around the world mandate the wearing of masks in public areas.
"Face coverings will be advised, not all the time, but in certain scenarios," Leo Varadkar said last week. "For example, indoors in a shop, on public transport, in a crowded place or where social distancing may not be practical."
Starting on June 8, face coverings will be recommended when visiting those who are cocooning during phase two of the Government's roadmap to ease lockdown restrictions. Chief medical officer Tony Holohan has said that further guidance on wearing face coverings will be issued in the next two weeks, which may include advice to wear them on public transport or in shops.
Both are keen to emphasise that supplies of medical-grade masks should be reserved for healthcare workers. The rest of us will likely be seeking out some sort of face covering in the coming weeks, and if we're all wearing them, it's only a matter of time before the mask becomes a fashion statement.
The most common alternative is the loose-fitting cloth mask, which offers one-way protection to capture bodily fluids from the wearer. They don't provide full coverage against Covid-19, but can act as a barrier when you cough or sneeze, and remind you not to touch your face.
Of course, from a public-health perspective, it doesn't matter what colour your mask is or where it's from. But we've always been particularly discerning about what we put on our face, whether it's a pair of glasses or a shade of lipstick.
With our faces half-covered, we lose one of our primary modes of communicating with others, which may instil a desire to broadcast our individuality through our choice of face covering. The mask will inevitably become, for some, a means of self-expression, a way of indicating our taste level and standing out from the crowd.
Back in January, Billie Eilish wore a Gucci mask on the Grammys red carpet. Last month, Miley Cyrus wore a Gucci mask to the supermarket. Lyst, the fashion search platform, named Off-White's arrow logo mask - €90, but now going for €330 on resale sites - the most searched-for item of the year. And on Instagram, mask selfies are trending, with posts from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Marc Jacobs and Kerry Washington, who joked: "Quarantine, but make it fashion." The age of the statement mask is nigh.
The masks produced for frontline staff by luxury houses such as Prada and Louis Vuitton are basic, white and unbranded, but others are experimenting. Collina Strada's exuberant printed masks, with large bows on the side, sell for €92, for which the brand also donates five masks to healthcare workers. And as well as the thousands of plain masks his team has made for New York hospitals, Christian Siriano has shared photos of decadent pearl-encrusted and petal-covered masks on social media, suggesting they "could be the future of protection and fashion".
For small businesses facing an uncertain future, the pivot to manufacturing face masks can provide a boost. With peak wedding season called off, Hazel Comyn, a bridal designer in Cahersiveen, is focusing her efforts on making masks, while Jane Carroll is repurposing the printed fabrics she typically uses to make children's clothes at her Blackrock store, and Dublin lingerie shop Space Out Sister has swapped feathered robes for face coverings.
In Cork, textile artist Jenny Monk has been selling printed masks through Instagram for €10 and in Kilkenny, Zoë Carol Wong is offering linen masks for €20 in muted red, grey and navy in her online shop.
Peacocks may prefer the vibrant prints of Niamh McCabe's organic cotton masks (€33, nimcake.com), Natalie B Coleman's luxurious silk face coverings with pleated trims (€25, nataliebcoleman.bigcartel.com) or the glamorous sequinned and animal-print masks by Eamonn McGill (€23-26, trendsbeautydistribution.com).
Masks are often a symbol of fear, which is why many Irish creatives are getting playful with their designs. "We wanted to make them fun and colourful and beautiful, as well as useful," explains Coleman, who is creating new styles every two weeks, and says a percentage of profits will be donated to Women's Aid. "The masks we are creating are a lot less threatening or scary-looking."
Eamonn McGill says he was spurred into making masks after a housemate requested one, adding: "I don't want a medical mask, I want a fashion mask!" This week, McGill says he sold 1,000 masks in 48 hours, with 10pc of sales donated to the Simon Community.
"It gives us a chance to bring more fun to our day-to-day outfits," he observes. "You can be more expressive with it. For us, there's a lot of plain black being sold, but also a lot of the more fun, glam ones being sold as well. It's all about personal preference."
Some critics feel uncomfortable with the idea of designers profiting from the anxiety and fear caused by the pandemic - following a heated backlash, online retailer Farfetch removed the listing for Off-White's masks, saying it had "blocked sales of face masks at excessive prices". Yet producing masks can be one of the few ways to keep small studios alive.
It can help when customers know a portion of sales go to charity, or that masks will be donated to those in need. We Make Good, a social enterprise brand based in Dublin, runs a "buy one, donate one" offer: for each purchase of a €25 mask, another is donated to a person living in Direct Provision. Sales also help to support its staff, women and men from a refugee background. In five weeks, it has sold €45,000 worth of masks. The charity aspect helps, but, co-founder Caroline Gardner points out, you can't discount the fashion element. Created using natural fabrics in dark, neutral colours, she describes the style as "utilitarian".
"It's like a pair of jeans. Everybody's got them, and there's a real focus on quality, comfort, durability and fit. That's really what we're trying to go for as well," she says. "There's a certain kind of beauty when form meets function. People are really responding to that type of beauty."