Packshot of the H1N1 – Prêt à Porter pamphlet, 2011
H1N1 – Prêt à Porter is a pamphlet with photographs of japanese women wearing masks to protect themselves from H1N1 taken in November 2009 in Fukuoka, Japan. The pamphlet contains 24 pages with an introduction by Martina Merten in English and Japanese. This limited edition of 250 numbered and signed copies is avalable in your local bookshop for € 19.– (ISBN 978-3-00-034951-5) or at

> Download a PDF on H1N1 – Prêt à Porter [463 KB]

Untitled, from »H1N1 – Prêt à Porter«, 2009
The whole body of work includes 8 portraits and several pack-shots of the mask packaging.

Untitled, from »H1N1 – Prêt à Porter«, 2009

Untitled, from »H1N1 – Prêt à Porter«, 2009

Open view of the H1N1 – Prêt à Porter pamphlet.

Open view of the H1N1 – Prêt à Porter pamphlet.

Useless chic
Bizarre beaks
Masks, no additional benefit

On April 24, 2009, the World Health Organization declared that the new influenza A/H1N1 a „constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.“ Shortly thereafter, experts announced that the „swine flu“ virus was the first pandemic in 40 years. All over the globe, be it far west, where the virus first appeared, or in the east, where it eventually spread, people were frantic with fear. Those easily frightened were the first to put faith in face masks as effective protection against infection. However, the WHO, the Robert Koch Institute in Germany and others were quick to announce that a face mask could not provide 100% protection, and that not all masks were the same.

In Japan, announcements like these fell on deaf ears. Manufacturers had a hard time meeting the sudden high demand for the cloth or gauze masks. A majority of Japan‘s population had already used the funny-looking masks in different shapes and price classes at one time or another, but now almost everyone on the streets of Tokyo, Osaka or Yokohama could be seen wearing them. Hints from other countries that the Japanese masked ball was a false reassurance didn‘t help either.

The Japanese didn‘t and still don‘t mind the jokes. Every corner drugstore sells masks, and they can be bought online in all shapes and colors. Protecting the nose and mouth is part of Japanese cultural tradition, in which hygiene plays an important role. Naoya Fujita, director of the Japan Hygiene Products Industry Association described this desire to be hygienic to the news agency AFP: „I think it’s part of the Japanese psyche to want to protect yourself at all costs from outside diseases. That feeling is stronger than the feeling of social embarrassment at wearing a mask.“

The face mask gained popularity in the early 20th century with the industrialization of Japan and the accompanying pollution through the dust and grime of factories. Influenza epidemics and earthquakes increased the citizens‘ need for external protection.

The masks have become a part of the Japanese identity despite the absence of new waves of infection. They represent a mixture of actual protection and simple outerwear, of chic fashion accessory and superfluous costume for the masses.

Still, the Japanese don‘t seem to particularly enjoy wearing their masks – the gazes behind them are earnest.  – Martina Merten, Journalist, Berlin