Birx’s nod to mask fashion is more than just sartorial

The White House coronavirus response coordinator began her remarks Wednesday with a seemingly light remark.

“Masks can be a fashion statement,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, noting another positive reason — aside from the public health standpoint — for Americans to wear them.

But amid the ongoing debate about wearing masks, led by President Donald Trump’s refusal to put one on in public, Birx’s endorsement of donning the fabric face and nose cover represents a redoubling of efforts to convince the public of their utility as coronavirus cases pass 3 million in the United States.

And indeed, masks have already become fashion statements. The deliberate effort of Birx and the task force to encourage the “fun” side of mask-wearing was a rare nod to the more personal way they can be a vehicle for individual expression.

Earlier this spring, fashion houses and designers were forced to close stores, and many pivoted to mask-making, turning leftover fabric into face coverings, with varying prints, patterns and colors, and selling them online. For a good deal of labels, as well as individual mask-makers, the switch to masks felt like a way to engage in community care, while still managing to keep some workers employed and stay afloat.

Perhaps the most notable and influential mask fashionista to emerge in the pandemic has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the majority of whose color-coordinated masks come from Donna Lewis, a small boutique in Northern Virginia.

The shop’s owner, Chris Lewis, told CNN that due to Pelosi’s on-camera appearances wearing her masks, many of which feature chic designs and flamboyant hues, demand for masks has increased at a rate he can barely keep up with. Lewis says Pelosi’s trendiness has resulted in the sale of at least 6,000 masks, and at $22 each, the income has been a lifeline while foot traffic at the store was halted due to Covid-19.

The nod of sartorial approval from Birx, one of the most visible and vocal members of the White House task force, was also notable in part because Birx herself has become something of a fashion plate, something she acknowledged from the podium at Wednesday’s briefing.

“I know some of you watch what I wear,” said Birx. “I’m wearing this specially today.”

Birx removed her mask and held it forward for cameras to see the insignia design, which she said was from the Salt River Tribe.

It is true that some observers have taken note of her fashion statements. Birx’s almost daily wearing of scarves as accessory has spawned its own Instagram account, @deborahbirxscarves, with more than 40,000 followers. Large or small, patterned with geometric designs or florals, Birx’s scarves are her signature.

Inspired by Birx to for the first time discuss the origins of his own mask during a briefing, Admiral Brett Giroir, another task force member, noted his was made by “a small religious community in Pennsylvania.”

Giroir noted the reason he liked his mask, and the reason he chose it, was that it matched his uniform.