Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Over the summer, protective masks–as-fashion reached something of a fever pitch: patterned, fringed, lace-adorned, and silken masks proliferated. But for a certain set, the most appealing mask wasn’t embellished at all — it was simple and pretty cheap: a black surgical mask. The sleeker cousin of the blue surgical mask, the black surgical mask has been spotted on everyone from Hailey and Justin Bieber to Kaia Gerber to K-pop group BTS and Kanye. We’ve noticed the mask around the city, too, on people picnicking in Fort Greene Park, and down around the chins of those drinking martinis outdoors at the Odeon. So, noting it had spread among stylish people from Calabasas to the line outside Sincerely Tommy in Bed-Stuy, we decided to investigate its appeal.
Will Anderson, formerly a senior product designer at Artsy, says he has been wearing the black surgical mask since early September. When asked how he would describe the look of the mask, his answer is simple: “Hot.” Anderson was tipped off to the black surgical masks by his friend Christian Lopez, who noticed them in an Instagram Story of Berlin-based DJ Honey Dijon. “She had posted about how now with the black mask, wearing it is not going to ruin an all-black outfit,” says Lopez. “I don’t wear black, really, but my boyfriend does, so I told him he should order some.” (He did). Lopez, who works in fashion, says that he’s noticed more and more black surgical masks appearing on set at shoots. “All of these set people are wearing all black with the black masks,” he says. “It’s a little scenester … it might be the health goth mask.”
If the black surgical mask is indeed the health goth mask, part of its appeal, according to the fans we spoke to, is a slight remove from its actual health context. “It feels less medical while still delivering the benefits of being medical,” says Laura Naparstek, a product marketing manager at Braze, who wears the black surgical mask daily (and happens to be a close friend). Anderson agrees: “The blue just felt a little surgical — a little doctor’s office, a little gross.” Lopez’s boyfriend, photographer Adam Ward, answered similarly: “The blue ones just look very surgical — the black ones are honestly just more subtle.”
And, importantly, the black masks offered an insouciant approach to mask-wearing in the first place. “I don’t want to look like I’m overthinking my mask, but I also don’t want to look like I’m about to go to the dentist,” says Anderson. “I’m not about to buy a MoMA mask or some shit.” Naparstek, who says she’ll don a novelty mask for special occasions, floated the idea that the masks are a more normcore alternative. “Most of the time, you desperately want to forget the mask is there, and you want it to blend in and not be a topic of conversation or thought,” she says. “The black surgical mask means you’re going to follow the rules and protect other people and yourself, but you’re not that precious about it.” Not to mention that in an uncertain time, the black mask has a reliable and comforting effect that wearing all black does. “It’s simple, safe, and self-explanatory,” says Naparstek. “Wearing it is as if you’re saying, ‘Yes, I’m wearing a mask, it looks chic as hell, now let’s move on.’”