Denise Ervin makes face masks at Fashion Institute Midwest.

OMAHA, May 19, 2020 — When this COVID-19 thing first started, the notion of wearing a mask in public seemed weird, like something only a paranoid or a hypochondriac would do. In fact, if I remember correctly, the people in charge originally told us to NOT wear masks because healthcare professionals needed them and unless the masks were of the professional-grade N95 variety, they weren’t stopping the virus anyway.

I saw my first mask in public sometime around the tail end of February while shopping at Baker’s; this was the very early days of the pandemic when people were still allowed to go to work, to rock shows, to restaurants. As I walked into the grocery store, out came a guy in his early 20s wearing your run-of-the-mill, pale-green surgical mask, which was quite a contrast with his black Pantera concert T-shirt and jeans.

I went home and told my wife, “Welp, saw my first mask at the grocery store today,” and we both laughed at the paranoid rube.

These days we make fun of people who DON’T wear face masks in public. Or at least we mentally shame them, passing judgment on their recklessness, their lack of respect for those working the front lines during the pandemic, or — more likely than not — their desire to make a political statement, like every time we see Trump in front of a masked press corps with his unadorned, pumpkin orange kisser.

With Trump, though, it’s probably not so much political, as he simply doesn’t think he looks good wearing a mask. Vanity, thy name is Trump.

But as the pandemic continues to ride us through the summer months and into the fall, wearing a mask won’t be a political statement as much as a fashion statement. Fashion has always been about individual choice, and there has never been a more in-your-face fashion statement than the mask you choose to wear.

Could face masks become the next hot fashion trend seen on the runways of New York, Paris and Milan? Maybe eventually, said Denise Ervin, but not quite yet.

Ervin has been involved in fashion since she was in high school, starting as a costumer at the Omaha Playhouse where she worked for 20 years, eventually becoming the head designer before getting her degree in fashion design from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles. For the past two years she’s been the workroom manager at the Fashion Institute Midwest, a nonprofit located in downtown Omaha committed to nurturing aspiring designer talent and supporting the Midwest fashion ecosystem.

So yeah, Ervin knows a thing or two about fashion. I asked her if she thought face masks could become the next big fashion accessory. She said it depends on how long we have to wear them.

“Right now, everyone is wearing whatever mask they can find,” she said, “but if this goes on, people will find a way to individualize masks, and they will become more of a fashion statement.”

She said luxury brands already have begun designing face masks. Vogue, GQ and Elle have published extensive lists of designer masks, with prices that range from $8 to $100 and beyond. Youth culture fashion mag Complex lists Omaha’s own Artifact Bags‘ super-cool cloth face mask among its favorites.

Way back in January, long before anyone was thinking about pandemics, recording star and fashionista Billie Eilish wore a green-and-black Gucci outfit to the Grammy Awards, complete with a Gucci face mask. “With this new reality, it’s going to become more prevalent for designers to include masks with their (fashion) lines,” Ervin said, but they still have to be functional. “Eilish’s mask was worthless as far as being protective. It was made of chiffon.”

Ervin said she’s been noticing masks people wear when she goes into stores. “Some are really well made and I wonder where they got them,” she said. “It’s not like we’re all buying those cheapie ones at the doctor’s office. People are definitely looking at fit, style, quality and function. Go onto Etsy and see how many people are making and selling masks. There are all kinds of crazy, wild designs.”

When I’m out I notice women wearing the fun colors, whereas guys are skulking around in gators — those masks that look like neckerchiefs that you pull over your nose bandit-style — or old-fashioned makeshift bandanas tied around their heads. That is if they’re wearing masks at all. Let’s face it, dudes are more vain than women.

“My brothers all want me to make them Nebraska (Cornhusker) masks,” Ervin said. She and her team at the Fashion Institute helped organize volunteers who made 12,000 face masks, mostly generic white, which were donated to a variety of local organizations such as nursing homes and shelters.

“When we did our mask project, people were making us masks with flowers and butterflies,” Ervin said. “No guy is going to want to wear those.”

Dudes are more apt to wear solid-color masks or maybe something in a macho camo pattern, “as opposed to what women are wearing. Women’s wear always has been a lot more colorful in that sense.”

Yeah, but what about masks for those formal occasions? Ervin says I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Right now that can’t happen because we can’t gather in a group in a formal setting,” she said. “But once things open up again and we have these larger gatherings, women are going to wonder, ‘What mask goes well with this dress?’”

When I go out into the world, I usually wear a pink gator emblazoned with my company’s logo that I was given years ago for taking part in a breast cancer event. I also have a black face mask that looks like I’m wearing a pair of women’s panties on my face.

But my favorite face mask is the wonky green-and-orange floral-print number my sister-in-law Gail made me that looks like I’m wearing a sofa cushion, with straps that cut into my ears. It’s the only one I’ll keep. I look forward to looking fondly at it years from now and remembering that time when we all wore masks to Baker’s.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at

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