Who could have known that face masks would become the most significant fashion accessory to emerge in the year 2020? Then again, who could have known, when they counted down to zero and screamed out ‘Happy New Year’ some months ago, that this year would be what it has become.

If the coronavirus pandemic and the surreal ‘new normal’ that it has foisted upon the world proves anything, it is that life is uncertain. You could have never predicted that this year you would be skipping out on an Eidul Fitr outfit, deflect a splurge-out on new summer clothes, turn a blind eye towards the latest wedding-wear and instead, spend a fair amount of time contemplating over the face mask that you’ll be wearing.

It needs to be breathable, comfortable and, most importantly, protect you from potential infection when you inevitably venture out into the world. Medical experts have repeatedly stressed how essential face masks are for controlling the spread of Covid-19. And certain parts of Pakistan, finally awakening to the real danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic now that numbers are spiking, have at last started masking up.

But face masks have their limitations. They can be uncomfortable, until you get used to them. They also tend to come in basic, bland colours, mostly covering the face untidily. The joy that comes with dressing up to go out — or even to buy groceries — fizzles out when your face is half-hidden by an unkempt, boring mask.

Fashion designers know this. It’s why so many of them, the world over, have zoned in on this latest accessory, borne out of necessity and an essential part of our sartorial lives for the next few months at least. Scattered all about major global fashion portals are a diverse range of masks: sets created with matching tees, easy breezy cotton ones and couture creations, worked with beads and chains.

Are brands cashing in on a major medical crisis with their face mask collections? Yes. But is it unethical to give people the chance to enjoy dressing up during these trying times? No. And aesthetically pleasing face coverings do not trivialise the risk posed by Covid-19. For some people, it may even be a morale booster, allowing them to enjoy a simple walk down the road a little bit more.

Shortly after the lockdown was implemented, face masks began to surface on the local high street. Generation, in fact, was one of the very first brands to begin retailing cloth masks. About two months later, Pakistan’s first Virtual Fashion Week (VFW), Catwalk Cares, was streamed on YouTube and the collective designer showcases featured quite a few masks.

Huma Adnan and Generation had created lightweight options in cotton, Shamaeel Ansari brought out more elaborate designs, Ali Xeeshan mixed and matched embroideries, while Shehla Chatoor plunged full-throttle into the embellished terrain of the bridal mask, matching her design with heavy duty wedding-wear.

“I’m creating masks and calling it my ‘Masquer-aid’ collection, simply because as we begin stepping out, we will want to look good while also ‘aiding’ ourselves with the right protection,” says designer Shamaeel Ansari. “Customers have been making enquiries for masks for a while now but, apart from creating attractive designs, I’ve made sure that they are more than just swathes of fabric. Masks need to fulfill certain scientific requirements in order to protect wearers while also being comfortable. I’m creating ranges that vary from luxury embroidered versions to more basic designs and sports masks. There are filters added in and the fabric is breathable and washable. It needs to do more than just look good in order to really serve its purpose.”

Similarly, Huma Adnan is retailing masks under her ‘Craft Stories’ line, providing options that adhere to technical requirements such as added filters and breathability. “We have heavily embroidered masks, with Swarovski crystals worked on them, that are primarily for parties,” describes Huma. “Then there are the cotton ones with lighter embellishment and block-printed cotton ones for regular wear. The block print designs are particularly doing well. Craft Stories focuses on handwork created by refugee women and they are creating the locking mechanism of the masks by hand. Soon, I’m also going to begin working with them on masks that are entirely stitched by hand. I don’t think the demand for this accessory is going to go down anytime soon.”

Generation’s CEO Khadija Rehman says that the cloth masks retailed by her brand have been bestsellers ever since their launch. Shehla Chatoor, also, has been creating masks that compliment her bridal designs, based on customers’ demands. “There are Covid-19 weddings taking place, although they are few in number, and the mask is an inevitable requirement,” says Shehla. “Customers ask for ‘bridal masks’ that have the same palette and embellishments as the bride’s clothes. The dimensions are one-size-fits-all with adjustments at the back.”

Is Shehla planning to retail bridal masks separately? “No, making them is not cost-effective at all. But as long as the coronavirus pandemic is around, masks will be used.”

Ali Xeeshan, who showcased matching masks with his clothes at the VFS, says that he isn’t a big fan of the wedding mask. “Decorated, personalised surgical masks are great for daily wear. We are making some of those and even masks for weddings, if clients require it. But personally, I feel that a mask diminishes a bride’s beauty to some extent. On her big day, I feel that a girl should be able to look the way she wants to look, without worrying about protecting herself and her guests from a virus. I’ve been advising brides who come to me that, unless there is an emergency, they should delay their weddings for a bit and wait until this virus has run its course. A bride should be able to smile at her wedding, without it getting hidden away by a mask!”

And yet, some weddings — if not all — will continue to take place even during these dire times. Life will have to go on, gingerly weaving its way through a surreal, masked new existence. There will be times when, in a bout of anxiety and helplessness, an aesthetically pleasing mask will seem like a frippery, pointless at a time when mortality itself lies in the balance.

At other times, it could be the lift-up needed just to make the day a bit better. Even a pretty, personalised mask, however, forms a barrier that didn’t exist before — eliminating the warmth that can be extended by a smile between strangers, or the chance to lip-read for people with limited hearing. At the same time, a masked and gloved population is unified even in its socially distanced new existence, exemplifying how we’re all in this together. And since Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon, we just have to go along with it.

One way to do this is by wearing a pretty, protective face mask.