I have spent the past 10 minutes trying to work out how to phrase this sensitively, but I’m just going to come right out with it: sunglasses with a face mask is a challenging combination to pull off. It just looks a bit odd.
Even though no one disagrees, this is a controversial topic nonetheless. Any discussion of the aesthetics of mask wearing is problematic, because the minute you start talking about style in this context it sounds as if you are weighing up whether it’s more important to (a) keep yourself and others safe or (b) look cool.
That’s not a thing. As long as we need to wear the masks, we wear the masks. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not allowed to talk about how to navigate this look. Face masks are, after all, the most radical shift in the optics of the world around us in decades. You would have to go back to the trend for long hair on men half a century ago to find anything as profoundly unignorable. We can’t just pretend masks aren’t there, when they are, literally, in your face. The same principle applies as when talking to someone who has spinach in their teeth. Awkward, but best to tackle the issue.
I feel like we are getting to grips with basic mask-wearing, just about – but now we face a fresh challenge. With a heatwave incoming, it is time to grapple with this summer’s most challenging high-summer look. One that makes last year’s headline-grabbing cycling shorts trend seem like a walk in the park by comparison. How to wear sunglasses with a face mask?
When Billie Eilish wore shades and a Gucci face mask to the Grammys back in January, it seemed like a pop star red-carpet stunt of the Rihanna-wears-an-omelette-to-the-Met-Gala variety. But – well, here we are, in the stranger-than-fiction summer of 2020. The combination of sunglasses and a face mask obliterates most of your face. Face coverings have long been common in many cultures, but for those of us not used to them, they impact dramatically on recognition and communication.
I was about to step into the post office on Saturday when a woman in front of me stopped in her tracks on the pavement, blocking the entrance, distracted by something on her phone. I couldn’t hustle past her, as would have been perfectly normal urban behaviour pre-social distancing. It was fine, I wasn’t in a hurry; I just waited. When she noticed me she looked stricken and apologised profusely – and I realised too late that my non-verbal signals of harmony and fellowship weren’t working because I had on a mask and shades. I had given her a we’ve-all-been-there-no-drama smile, but she wasn’t to know. As far as she was concerned, I might have been glaring at her. It made me feel sad.
It may not be possible to look friendly in a mask and sunglasses, but there are ways to look less mean. The most important part is to show some skin. We think of showing flesh as being a sex thing, but it’s not always about that. It has a basic humanising effect (this is why politicians love to roll their sleeves up in photo opportunities). The actor Kerry Washington’s Instagram selfies usually feature a soft, curly fringe, but when she teams black Fenty shades with a leopard-print mask, she scrapes her hair back from her face. An updo that bares your neck and temples is good for avoiding Cousin Itt vibes, here.
Smaller sunglasses that cover less surface area work better than the old-school Hollywood bug-eyed ones. (Also the cute whimsy of a cat’s-eye shape is better, mood-music wise, than the angular Neo-from-Matrix style. Enough dystopia, already.) If you want to go 70s rather than 50s, take a cue from Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem in Mrs America, and find some pale aviators, tinted rather than opaque, so that you can see your eyes. Joe Biden, who has been wearing Ray-Ban silver-frame aviators for decades, has a head start in this particular race.
New York – where masks have been mandatory in public since April, and it has been sunglasses weather for much of that time – is the place to look for mask-and-shades street style. In June, Katie Holmes had already caught on to the advantages of a cat’s-eye shape, wearing dainty shades that curved upwards to show some cheekbone above the mask and pulling her hair into a high bun, to expose the skin at her neck and temples. Sarah Jessica Parker teams her dark glasses with a sunny, sky-blue bandana tied as a mask, and manages to exude rakish glamour.
My impulse-bought gingham and animal print masks languish unworn, because I have worked out that I feel least self-conscious in the plain-black kind. So I have put away my trusty black Wayfarers and dug out gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and a tortoiseshell cat’s-eye style. Matching the colour of your mask to your sunglasses blanks out your face in a slightly spooky way, so I’ll leave the black shades to those of you in paler or brighter masks, this summer. Also, I’d probably advise against going for both a wacky, brightly coloured mask and zany sunglasses. I know that fashion is supposed to reflect the world we live in, but when the world we live in is this strange, I feel like it’s not quite necessary.
There is another reason, besides the simple mummification of our faces, that a mask and sunglasses reads as a strange combination. A mask tells us something is wrong (you don’t say). Sunglasses, on the other hand, signal warm carefree days – and so, they make an oddly mismatched pair. But look on the bright side. Yes, we need to wear masks. But hey – it’s summer. And, as sunglasses remind us, sunny days will come again.