The first must-have look of the “new normal” doesn’t have a designer label, or a hefty price tag. In fact, you probably already have what you need in a drawer somewhere. And while this may not stand as concrete proof that lockdown truly has ushered in a new era of shared community identity and mindful consumerism, I see no reason why we can’t take it as a cheering sign.
The scarf-mask is the status accessory of summer 2020. All you need is a square of fabric folded in half corner-to-corner to make a triangle, and wrap it tightly around your face from the bridge of your nose, securing at the back of your head. It began with hipsters and influencers on the streets of New York. One of that city’s ultimate style icons, Sarah Jessica Parker, introduced the look to her 6 million Instagram followers, wearing it to open her new boutique. And now Sienna Miller – the OG trendsetter, the woman who singlehandedly made boho chic happen with little more than a maxi skirt and a shaggy fringe two decades ago – has brought it to Britain on the cover of the latest issue of Grazia.
Sure, go ahead and roll your eyes at the fashion industry cherrypicking face coverings based not on efficacy but on aesthetics. But I would argue that a face mask that can get itself on to the cover of a glossy magazine, from where it amplifies the mask-wearing message on every newsstand, is doing a powerful job against the spread of the virus. And the scarf-mask has well-intentioned roots, not just vain ones. When the pandemic took hold in the US earlier this year, there were widespread reports about the scarcity of disposable surgical masks. In April, US Vogue suggested “scarves, kerchiefs or bandanas” as “inventive ways to shield … from the virus without taking much-needed equipment from PPE workers on the frontlines”.
Disposable surgical masks are the next best thing to surgical-grade N95 respirators in containing the virus. But with mask-wearing becoming a long-haul prospect, many experts are raising environmental concerns about their landfill impact. Studies into the comparative effectiveness of different fabrics have produced various results, but evidence points toward high-thread count cotton or silk as more effective than man-made fibres. Thread count refers to the number of threads in one square inch of fabric, so a high thread count generally means a denser fabric, with fewer gaps through which virus particles can travel. Most experts suggest that three or four layers of fabric are better than one or two – so a shawl-sized scarf, which can be folded into quarters before use, might be a smart move.
But there is no denying that the status of the scarf-mask has risen largely on the basis of it having a vibe. On Desert Island Discs recently, Annie Nightingale talked about how the emotional power of music goes beyond happiness and heartbreak, and how there are songs that can make you feel brave. The same is true for fashion. Just as an Alexander McQueen trouser suit channelled fearlessness in the boardroom, there is something about the maverick-bandit mood music of a scarf-mask that can make you feel you are squaring up to the virus rather than hiding from it. In Britain, in the month of June, some of the most mesmerising images on social media were the black-and-white portraits from the Black Lives Matter protests by Misan Harriman, the photographer who went on to shoot Marcus Rashford for the latest cover of Vogue. Many of his pictures featured protesters in bandana-style face coverings, giving the humble scarf-mask a visual connection to a profound national moment of hope and courage in the face of adversity.
In the US, where the Trump administration has twisted mask wearing from a collective health effort into a toxic culture war, wearing a bandana-style scarf-mask has taken on an extra note of defiance. Kristen Stewart, Hollywood’s go-to badass, alternates between red-and-white and monochrome bandanas tied as face coverings. Orlando Bloom has Instagrammed himself wearing one in a tattoo parlour. When both Amber Heard and Johnny Depp chose bandana-style masks for their court appearances last month, the scandal and controversy boosted the profile of the scarf-mask even higher.
The look as seen on Sarah Jessica Parker and on Sienna Miller softens the bandit mood into something more decorative and glamorous. A soft scarf in a pretty colour and pattern is pulled taut, sloping just below the cheekbones. With a smoky eye and tousled curls, SJP manages to make a mask look demure and mysterious. Perhaps the diamond shape of the scarf-mask is more flattering on the bone structure than the jaw-strap kind. Perhaps the adjacency of a scarf-mask to the timeless chic of a silk scarf tied at the throat lends it an old-school elegance that fitted shapes can’t rival. Perhaps the fact that silk isn’t quite so face-meltingly hot when the temperature rises gives it more allure. Whichever way you look at it, the new normal has its first fashion moment.