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Masks not just for criminals

KAMPONG THOM PROVINCE
LAY LIDA stares into the mirror, studying the minute details discernable only by a teenage girl.

The 17-year-old’s synopsis: This ensemble has got to be perfect. She’s meeting friends later. There could be boys. But the outfit is missing a key component: the right surgical mask.

Glancing past the blue ones in her parents’ shop in Kampong Thom town, she descends upon a pink face mask – it just feels like a pink sort of day, she explains. “Masks make me more beautiful,” she says. “They make me look good.”

Call this the anti-fashion trend, one that hides, rather than augments, someone’s look. It’s a marriage between practicality and chic that – bolstered by fears of H1N1, air pollution and the dusty grip of the dry season – is sweeping across Cambodia and other parts of Asia, according to fashion experts, surgical mask producers, sellers and wearers.

“This is a kind of fashion,” said Amra Doeur, who works at Tom & Alice Custom Tailors in Phnom Penh. “Everyone wears masks to protect their body, but the fashion part is choosing what mask is the best.”

Already, novelty masks have crept into a few shops and stores across Cambodia to meet this new demand for fashionable masks. “I envision these masks in hospital paediatrics departments, libraries, schools and airports,” said Irina Blok, an America-based designer of novelty masks who has sold roughly 500 so far. “There’s huge potential out there.”

A walk through any urban market clearly shows the ubiquity and diversity of surgical masks in the Kingdom.

A varied selection hangs in just about any market shop that sells masks, with cartoon-adorned items in every colour of the rainbow dangling freely, stripping any sinister value once inherent to masks. It’s certainly hard to imagine any self-respecting maniacal killer or ninja going about his business wearing a pink mask emblazoned with a teddy bear asking, “Tough enuff?”

Fortunately, the purpose of these masks isn’t mayhem. It’s health and protection, in particular blocking dust particles and providing a perceived protection from common sicknesses like influenza.

Cambodians are a sensible people, said Chea Botom, owner of a souvenir shop in Siem Reap. Usually, they don’t do things superfluously. So in today’s world, with so many airborne pathogens, masks have become like your credit card: Don’t leave home without it.

So why not enliven something that is deemed necessary? Chea Botom says this love affair with facial gauze is all because of Japan. Just as many Western fashions matriculate from the streets of Paris, much of Asia’s fashion is linked to Japan. The mask is no different.

In the early 1900s, after Japan had been enveloped by the Industrial Revolution – and all the dirt and disease that went with it – the face mask gained popularity outside of the operating room, reflecting the country’s abhorrence of germs and grime.

A decade ago, when an incipient Cambodian tourism industry spawned direct contact with other Asians and their surgical masks, the trend quickly infected the Kingdom.

Still, the style of fashionable masks remains “in its infancy”, said Fiona Kizston, owner of Wild Poppy in Siem Reap. “But once Cambodians see Asians from other countries wearing novelty masks more often, it will catch on here.”

So for now, forget the rhetorical question – “tough enuff?” – that some novelty masks pose. Because hiding behind a mask from dust and the flu may not be the best barometer of moxie.

Instead, let’s ask: Practical enuff? Or, better: Fashionable enuff? Yes and yes.

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