strat investigates

What a Strategist Writer Learned From Six Months of Writing About Masks

The market has grown more saturated by the day.

An invention from the L.A. denim brand 69. Photo: Jessica Pettway
An invention from the L.A. denim brand 69. Photo: Jessica Pettway

For the Strategist’s first article about masks, published in late January, we consulted with three infectious-disease doctors who confirmed what we had heard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and nearly every other qualified expert: Don’t wear them. Medical-grade N95 masks worked only if properly fitted and needed to be reserved for health-care workers.

By March, stocks of N95 masks were running dangerously low. Hospital staffers were forced to reuse masks, and patients were reportedly given tissues to cough into. Non-medical-grade masks were then said to be a good option. In response, amateur mask-making took off, whether it was by a group of Amish women in Pennsylvania who sewed 13,000 masks for a local medical center or by designer Christian Siriano, who shut down his clothing production and shifted to making masks for medical professionals full time.

Still, no one I knew was even considering buying a mask. We were all following the advice we’d been given, dutifully wiping down counters and washing our hands so often they hurt. That is, until China and South Korea released studies suggesting that 25 to 50 percent of infectious people showed no symptoms. Finally, on April 3, the CDC recommended that everyone wear face coverings in public. Surfaces were no longer the threat. Breathing was, which meant everyone around you was too.

America scrambled. Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general, put out a video showing how to make a face covering from rubber bands and fabric. If you needed a mask in early April, you bought it on Etsy, made your own, or found a friend who could sew. There were a lot of people walking around with what looked like bedsheets on their faces.

Buck Mason, a menswear brand in L.A., had actually started making masks a few weeks before as a way to help essential workers and planned to donate a mask for each one sold. “We’d heard no one should wear masks, but some outlier articles indicated we should be getting them to our warehouse employees,” says co-founder Erik Allen Ford. In what seemed like a day, dozens of companies, from Hedley & Bennett to Diop to Rag & Bone, had joined the scrum.

On a whim, we decided to publish an article surfacing decent fabric masks that I would be willing to wear. There were fewer than a dozen, most of which were from Etsy.

In only two days, that post had been read by more than 110,000 people. Clearly, most Etsy sellers weren’t expecting the attention; my editor and I scanned the story in shifts to remove items that had sold out and add new ones. A week later, when Governor Cuomo announced that New Yorkers must wear face coverings in public, traffic to the story spiked again. And it’s stayed spiked: Over the past four months, it has been the fifth-most-read article across all our New York Magazine sites.

Meanwhile, Buck Mason quickly blew past its initial goal to make and donate 100,000 masks — it sold nearly 400,000 in the first month. Smaller companies had similar results. Kiki Pedro-Hall, who, pre-pandemic, made custom clothing for Kehlani and Chance the Rapper, stopped work and began making masks in her apartment. Now, her company, Ki Collection, employs seamstresses in the Bronx, Staten Island, and Brooklyn — all people who lost their jobs in the Garment District.

As our article grew, both in length and popularity, we were hearing in the comments section that some of the masks weren’t very good. Since anyone could make a mask, and nobody knew what it meant to make an effective one, there was no quality control. So I started ordering them. For weeks, they arrived one or two a day, until eventually there were stacks sitting by my front door waiting to be tested. Since then, I’ve tried 43 myself. With the help of the rest of the Strategist team, we’re up to 61. Testing so many has helped me learn which types fit my face. It has also let me observe, up close, the constant shifts in mask innovation.

The best have a few things in common: (1) They pass the light test, something we learned about from Dr. Scott Segal, who headed up a materials study at Wake Forest Baptist Health. He suggests holding your mask up to the sun. The more light that passes through, the less effective the mask is. (2) They fit tightly to your face. (3) They have a bendable nose strip for a more snug — and if you’re a glasses-wearer, fog-free — fit. (4) They fasten with adjustable ear loops.

Then summer came. Suddenly, the thick masks we had all gotten used to were making our faces sweat. Companies launched new designs made of lightweight cottons and moisture-wicking synthetics. But just as a sigh of relief passed through our summer-appropriate masks, new information came out upending everything we thought we knew. That moisture-wicking material? It wicks those particles right out through the front of your mask, where they’re a greater threat to others. Every day, there was a new mask. And every other day, it seemed, there was a new study. We added disclosures to our articles and kept testing.

Maybe it was because the warmer weather meant everyone started hanging out outside again, but it started to matter a bit more what these masks actually looked like. Which means that, at this point, there is almost literally an option for everyone and by everyone — from Collina Strada to Phillip Lim, Crayola to Devo (they also have a face shield attached to their signature dome hat).

Even in such a short time, we’ve watched micro mask trends come and go. Batik and Ankara fabric masks were popular in the beginning, when they were cited as good choices in a study out of Wake Forest. Then came florals, bandanna prints, protest masks, and masks covered in ruffles, lace, sequins, and tassels. Stacey Abrams has a vote mask that benefits her nonprofit. There are limited-edition masks from Proenza Schouler, a $1.5 million diamond-encrusted mask by Israeli jewelry brand Yvel. And there are certain masks that more quietly signal status. For instance, the crew who work at and circle around the Lower East Side restaurant Cervo’s tend to wear masks from designer–drag performer Steak Diane. Teens have their own rules: They’re customizing them with markers and Drake lyrics.

In early summer, influencer Lara Eurdolian launched a line of gold mask chains. Within days, dozens, then hundreds, of sellers were producing look-alikes. Then came the ear savers, clips, and headbands, meant to make the elastic less uncomfortable. (Those too have been big business — one Etsy shop, called “MASKCoUS,” has sold more than 10,000 ear savers in two months.) Soon there will be masks that make our clumsy, early attempts at protection look futile: ones that can stymie the virus upon contact, others that can amplify the wearer’s voice. But this is where we are six months in.

All the Masks We’ve Written About

Photo: Courtesy of Giovanna/

*A version of this article appears in the August 31, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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What I Learned From Six Months of Writing About Masks