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Westminster Menswear Archive to stage exhibition on face coverings

By Danielle Wightman-Stone


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courtesy of the Westminster Menswear Archive

Westminster Menswear Archive at the University of Westminster has announced a new exhibition revealing how face coverings have evolved in response to Covid-19 over the last 12 months.

‘Undercover – From Necessity to Luxury: The Evolution of Face Coverings during Covid-19’, opens on May 11, one year on from when the UK government first advised people to wear face coverings in enclosed public spaces and explores how evolved to being an everyday object.

“The simple cloth face covering, which appears to be an unassuming and uncomplicated object, has quickly become a symbolic and contentious artefact,” explains the exhibition curators in a press release.

The exhibition will explore how these ordinary objects have been transformed from their medical origins to become a highly desirable fashion accessory produced by companies ranging from BoohooMan, which was one of the earliest to be created in April 2020 to Louis Vuitton, selling a mask cover and matching bandana set for 350 pounds.

courtesy of the Westminster Menswear Archive

There are 52 unique face coverings included in the display, including Burberry, Raeburn, Adidas, Balenciaga, Ahluwalia, Liam Hodges, Mulberry, Christopher Kane, JW Anderson, Levi’s, Liberty, Manchester City FC, and Paul Smith.

The masks will be displayed in chronological order to examine how rapidly the fashion industry adapted production, manufacturing, and online marketing to meet changing consumer demands, as well as how brands responded to support the global effort to produce PPE for medical personnel.

The evolution of face coverings to be examined with new fashion exhibition

Talking about the exhibition, Professor Andrew Groves, Professor of Fashion Design, said in a statement: “The rapidly evolving response by designers, as well as the ephemeral nature of the face covers produced, made this an exciting and challenging exhibition to curate. The objects only tell part of the story, as companies unable to rely on their usual supply chains pivoted their production to meet the unprecedented demand for this new product.

“While a year ago, most masks might have seemed to be similar, over the last 12 months we have seen a divergence as consumers and brands have used their mask as a means of differentiating themselves from the masses. As is often the case with fashion, wealth, status, and access have resulted in this simple object rapidly evolving in terms of materiality, functionality, and marketing.”

courtesy of the Westminster Menswear Archive

Dr Danielle Sprecher, menswear curator at the Westminster Menswear Archive, added: “Collecting such a range of face coverings for this exhibition has enabled us to look closely at the different ways that the fashion industry has responded (or not responded) to the advent of this new accessory in the UK. It has been fascinating to track these developments through both online retail and in-store offerings.

“Due to the nature of the Westminster Menswear Archive we have also been able to look at the historic continuity within menswear design of the use of face coverings. Generous funding from the University of Westminster Arts, Communication and Culture Research Community has meant that we have been able to acquire physical masks for the collection. This means we have been able to create a unique repository to reflect this extraordinary period.”

Alongside the main exhibition will be a photographic presentation ‘Undercover. From Necessity to Debris: The Pollution of Face Coverings During Covid-19’ featuring 365 photographs taken over the last year of discarded face coverings in the street.

The photographs aim to act as both an archive of highly disposable material culture and as a reflection on the environmental impact of our response to Covid-19. It will be curated digitally as 365 NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) available on OpenSea, the world’s largest marketplace for digital goods.

‘Undercover – From Necessity to Luxury: The Evolution of Face Coverings during Covid-19’ will run from May 11 to June 5, 2021.

courtesy of the Westminster Menswear Archive
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Westminster Menswear Archive