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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Mask in place, will the handkerchief be history?

Mask in place, will the handkerchief be history?

All products have a natural life cycle and the handkerchief too could be headed towards an inevitable obsolescence accelerated by the pandemic that has grown mask usage.
  • The mask is already haute couture with luxury brands launching designer versions while the handkerchief has become a retro accessory, like pocket squares or tie bars.
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    Is the dainty, lace handkerchief, symbol of genteelness and a love token for poets from Shakespeare onward, headed for the scrap yard of similar vanities?

    The emergence of the mask as essential protective equipment for men and women alike, seems to suggest a definite slowdown in sales for a product category that is estimated to be worth approximately $10 billion globally. Growth, however, had been flat, even before this pandemic, as more and more men have learnt to blow their nose and wipe their brow into a tissue.

    It has happened before, beautiful objects rendered redundant by changes in social mores give way to others more in tune with what people need. Such products may continue to exist but lacking in economic viability, they disappear from the mass market and become collectibles. Already, the men's handkerchief has become a retro accessory, like pocket squares or tie bars.

    Among women too, the handkerchief's only real function, an occasional dab of the nose or as a receptacle for a lone tear drop, will now be completely eliminated by the mask that covers all. Nor is it just a functional tool. The mask is already haute couture with luxury brands launching their range of designer face covers.

    The handkerchief's story follows the natural life cycle of products, with obsolescence an inevitable part of the process. The hourglass gave way to the clock, the fountain pen to the ballpoint pen. The video cassette recorder was replaced by DVDs and the fold away paper map by Google maps. Functionality finally overrides form.

    Almost always, such market-benders are driven by powerful movements in society which, in turn, lead to behaviour change among consumers.

    In recent times, most obsolescence has stemmed from technological breakthroughs leading to better or faster replacements. The mobile phone killed such one-time essentials as the Rolodex—that flipping stand in which people kept information about their business contacts, and the Filofax. At one time, visiting card holders had become status symbols, coming in gold and silver as well as fine leather. Today, they are an anachronism.

    In the face of such transitions, companies that have defined product breakthroughs have found themselves upended as consumers embrace the new. Filofax, the UK-based brand that launched the ubiquitous leather-bound organizers back in 1921, grew rapidly through the 1980s. By 1987, it was stocked by hundreds of retail outlets across the world, including prestigious stores like Harrods, Bloomingdales and Galleries Lafayette. Customers couldn't get enough of the product. Indeed, the Filofax became the badge of the successful executive in control over her life. That year, Filofax made "pre-tax profits of £1.4 million on a turnover of £6.7 million" according to a wonderful 2010 monograph A Chronology of Filofax by Kevin Hall. Sadly, it was the apogee of Filofax's success and despite a mini-revival in the 1990s, it ultimately yielded ground to the plethora of apps and programs freely available on computers and smartphones.

    But technology alone doesn't account for the fading away of products. There have been other factors too.

    For nearly 400 years between the 16th and early 20th century, the corset was considered an integral part of a woman's dress. Only when evidence emerged to show it might be impacting lung function did the corset fall out to favour. But it took the introduction of elastic along with the movement for healthy lifestyles and bodies shaped by exercise and sports, to finally confine the corset to the realm of fetish and high fashion.

    In the abstract to the book Cultures of Obsolescence History, Materiality, and the Digital Age, the editors Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman write "Obsolescence is fundamental to our consumer practices, our relationship to objects, and our everyday lives".

    The difference, of course, is that the mask isn't just an upgradation or a better replacement of an existing product. It is a completely different category of product and a life-saver to boot. Studies now suggest that if 80% of the people in the US wore a professional mask every time they stepped out, the virus could actually be eliminated from the country.

    Eventually, the pantomime of the mask will allow us to live, but it will also detribalize us by social isolation. In the face of such heightened awareness, the handkerchief is destined to face tough times ahead. Its fall is the collateral damage from the rise of the mask, reminiscent of the fate that pagers suffered when mobile phones came in or the wristwatch that has now been replaced by phones to check the time and by fitness bands as accessories to wear on wrists.

    Once a covid-19 vaccine is finally launched, it is quite possible that the mask may lose its very relevance. Yet, will the humble handkerchief, once forgotten, re-emerge and reclaim its position in the pockets of women and men? The evidence of history suggests that once consumer interest in a product ebbs and its usage wanes, it is difficult for it to come back.

    Our throwaway society is configured for planned obsolescence, and for most product companies, it is part of their marketing strategy. But when it comes unplanned, it isn't so welcome. As the makers of alarm clocks, pagers, fountain pens and visiting card holders will testify, change may be the only constant but so is the pain that comes with it.

    There was a time when every Western house had a hat stand. But hats went out of fashion quite dramatically.

    Will the hat stand now be replaced by one to hang masks?

    Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint.

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    Published: 15 May 2020, 11:40 AM IST
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