Aesthetics of Medical Wearables

The Face Mask as Functional Fashion

Aesthetics of Medical Wearables: The Face Mask as Functional Fashion examines how designers can alter the emotional context and public perception of medical wearables. This study speculates how designers may reframe the face mask as a functional fashion accessory to expand their public use and potentially control the spread of infectious respiratory diseases.
Part I identifies how aesthetically pleasing medical wearables may improve emotional context and dispel social stigma of the medical object while serving as a means of self-expression for the user. 

Part II analyzes how these findings can be used by designers to promote public use of face masks by elevating the mask from utilitarian object to fashion accessory.

Part I

Medical Devices as Functional Fashion

Conventional design of medical objects prioritizes functionality with little emphasis on aesthetics. While functionality should rightly remain the main focus in medical device design, there is value in also considering the appearance of wearable medical devices. If users have a choice in the look of their medical wearable, they may feel an increased sense of ownership and confidence. Aesthetically pleasing medical wearables have the capability to function as fashion products, creating a more positive public image of both the object and its wearer. By transforming utilitarian medical objects into aesthetically pleasing products, designers have the potential to reframe perception of medical wearables.

Images show eyeglasses as an example of a medical object elevated to fashion accessory. Even people who do not need their vision corrected may wear nonprescription glasses as a fashion statement.

Top left: Gucci SS 2016 (

Bottom left: Chanel Haute Couture FW 2019/2020 (

Bottom right: Givenchi RTW SS 2019 Paris (Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

Designer and researcher Graham Pullin criticizes conventional design of medical objects in his book, Design Meets Disability. Pullin discusses the capabilities of designers in changing perception of visible disability through increased consideration for aesthetics in medical devices including hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and wheelchairs. He encourages the medical design field to embrace the language and culture of the fashion industry to create devices that promote a more positive view of disability.1

Pullin references eyeglasses as an example of a medical product that has been transformed into a fashion accessory with little to no attached social stigma. By recontextualizing eyeglasses as fashion, they are not interpreted as an indication of physical disability but instead as a part of the wearer’s outfit.2 If both the user and the public perceive a medical device as fashion, the user may feel more confident when wearing the device resulting in an increased frequency and pleasure of use.

Researcher Dr. Olga Vainshtein examines how medical prosthetics have the capability to perform as functional fashion accessories in her 2012 article “I have a Suitcase just Full of Legs because I Need Options for Different Clothing: Accessorizing Bodyscapes.” Vainshtein analyzes recent trends in aesthetically pleasing medical prosthetics which can empower the wearer, initiate conversation about disability, and expand the meaning of fashion.3

“Redesigning the medical device reinscribes the emotional context of post injury trauma: prosthesis transformed into fashionable accessory helps to preserve human dignity.”4 While Vainshtein’s article refers to medical devices such as prosthetic limbs, canes, and neck braces, the sentiment may inspire designers working on any medical wearable that could carry a negative emotional context.

Images show prosthetics as a form of art and fashion.

Top left: Neck brace designed by Francesca Lanzavecchia as part of her ProAesthetics 2008 Masters Thesis Project. The project reinterprets medical disability aids such as back and neck braces “with the aim of transforming them into objects of desire and representative skins.”

Middle right: Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins in Dazed & Confused September 1998 Fashion Able issue (Photo by Nick Knight, styling Katy England, commissioned by Alexander McQueen)

Bottom left: The “Crystal Leg” prosthetic was created by Sophie De Oliveira Barata of the Alternative Limb Project and worn by singer/songwriter and performance artist Viktoria Modesta. (Photo by Eloise Parry for Dazed)