Can Culture Beat the Coronavirus?

By Rotem Perach

How can we beat the coronavirus? It seems that culture is already developing its own prescriptions, specifically, against the psychological effects of the coronavirus outbreak. In recent fashion week catwalks in New York and Paris, designers re-imagined face masks as a fashionable, rather than solely contamination-protective, accessory. While some may question the point of wearing stylistic face masks, the increasing popularity of this cultural trend suggests that fundamental psychological motives are at play.

Fashion has the capacity to transform the meaning of cultural phenomena. For example, in the 1990s, fashion created heroin chic, which turned the cultural meanings of deadly drug use on its head. This fashion trend conceptualized drug use as beautiful rather than a fatal addiction. It seems that designer face masks transform the cultural meanings of face masks in a similar way.

Face masks, such as those used in hospitals, suggest an attempt to prevent disease and possibly death. Since the coronavirus outbreak, face masks are likely associated with the deadly outcomes of coronavirus exposure. However, by re-imagining face masks as a fashion item, fashion has linked the masks with key cultural values such as beauty, aesthetics, and consumerism. People recognise these newly-ascribed cultural meanings that are attached to designer face masks, as seen for example in the incorporation of designer face masks into streetwear and their increased market value.

Which psychological motives could designer face masks serve? One possibility is that designer face masks offer people a way to defy death, not in a literal sense, but a symbolic one. Objects that are culturally-valued, for example the national flag, can influence the way we manage the awareness that, just like everyone else, we too will die. This is because culture is enduring and will outlive the existence of any one of us. In other words, culturally-valued objects can function to affirm people’s their sense of belonging to a long-lasting culture, when they are made aware of their finite nature.

Designer face masks, then, can be seen as one way that people manage the existential threat that is the coronavirus. Because fashion has now linked face masks with key cultural values, designer face masks offer people one avenue for affirming their existence beyond the geographic spread of the coronavirus. Furthermore, designers’ face masks are often part and parcel of futuristic, post-human imagery, which holds the promise of belonging to a post-coronavirus future. Thus, designer face masks may represent the possibility of (symbolically) transcending space and time in the face of potential coronavirus exposure and contagion. Simply put, designer face masks possibly offer people immortality (in a symbolic sense) in the current coronavirus outbreak.

Considering these potential psychological effects, designer face masks may not be just another luxury item. Wheareas they alone may not be sufficient to prevent coronavirus contagion, designer face masks could potentially buffer anxiety in the face of the coronavirus.

Dr Rotem Perach is social and health psychology researcher. His areas of expertise include older persons, health behaviours, sleep, and wellbeing. He is currently a research fellow, working as part of the DETERMIND team at the University of Sussex.

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