- The balaclava is named after a Ukrainian port town. In the mid-19th century, British troops were sent handmade cloth headgear in order to withstand the bitter cold during the Crimean War.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and sociopolitical unrest have created both a need and demand for face coverings. Fashion designers have created their own versions of this accessory in a variety of fabrics and price points in order to capture the attention of customers.
- The recent embrace of these accessories by fashion publications has been met with backlash from Muslim activists who find their stance to be hypocritical. They point out that this sartorial choice is only celebrated when is worn by white women. Yet Muslim women are banned from wearing religious garb such as the hijab in places like France.
Masks and balaclavas (also known as ski masks) have become ubiquitous accessories since people have adjusted to our new normal. High-end interpretations from designers including Marine Serre, Rick Owens, and Balenciaga have replaced sterile PPE. Even TikTok and Instagram have exploded with videos and posts from creatives crocheting their own DIY face and head coverings. The hashtag “#balaclava” has 272k posts on Instagram and 161.9 million views for videos attached to it, and the trend does not appear to be dying down. The sociopolitical climate in recent years coupled with a global pandemic took what could’ve been a niche fashion trend and propelled fashion face coverings into the mainstream.
Despite the CDC’s recently updated stance on cloth face masks not providing as much protection as surgical masks or respirators, the need for face coverings has arguably shifted the West’s acceptance of the veiled face in public life for good. Once relegated to parts of Asia following the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 or customary religious attire this state of dress has been adopted by many Gen Z and Millenial customers as part of their daily uniform. Hip hop musicians have been some of the earliest adopters of the look, with Kanye West wearing iterations by Margiela back in 2013 and 2014 on his tour for Yeezus. Recently, Travis Scott, Brooklyn’s Leikeli47, and rapper RMR have all followed suit influencing legions of fans and young people in the process. (GQ)
Covering one’s face as a public figure can be seen as a subversive act. Perhaps Kanye’s decision to cover his face is a move towards reclaiming part of his image or keeping it more private in the wake of a very public divorce. Or maybe not. Designer Demna Gvasalia’s balaclava and gimp masks for Balenciaga have been worn by both West at his recent shows and his ex Kim Kardashian—most notably at the 2021 Met Gala. These outfits are evidently inspired by the uniforms of fringe cultures (outside the norm of mainstream society), but what do these references really mean when they are coopted by billionaire entertainers and media moguls? Whatever their intentions for wearing these masks, one thing is certain-—these looks are meant to garner attention. Whether it be the idea of subverting celebrity, aligning themselves with of the moment subcultures, or simply letting their freak flags fly.
This recent nod to fetish wear across brands can be seen as a direct response to the lockdowns that kept people indoors, as Professor Andrew Groves explained in an article for The Guardian: “Adopting fetish clothing as fashion can be interpreted as a desire to switch the relationship, take back control, and show them who is really in charge.” In contrast to these reactionary fashions that have included variations of the face mask, youths in urban centers have begun to adopt the balaclava where “[t]here is a growing technological culture in cities across the world of hyper-surveillance and facial recognition.” (GQ) In our hyper vigilant new reality where people of color are disproportionately targeted many see the balaclava as an aid in maintaining anonymity as well as a fashion statement.
Balaclavas produced in thick merino wool, cashmere, and jersey can be found across major retailers and designers in prices from $150 to $1125. Yet this garment has humble origins, named after the Battle of Balaclava (a town near Sevastopol) during the Crimean War of 1854. British soldiers had handmade cloth headgears sent over to help protect them during the bitter cold. The recent interest in a romanticized idea of Soviet Era Eastern bloc fashion was first introduced by designers such as Gosha Rubichinskiy and championed by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia in his recent collections. Balaclavas have been featured primarily in collections from both. The headgear is associated with “pro-Russian sepatarists to avoid surveillance,” but has become a symbol of pride and resistance (CNN). The Russian feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot often includes them in their onstage outfits.
Whether worn to make a political statement, keep warm, or stand out it’s undeniable that the balaclava hides or obscures one’s face. Since this garment has been embraced by the fashion world and adopted by Western consumers, there has been a growing sentiment of outrage amongst Muslim women. Some of these women have taken to social media to decry what they feel is offensive due to its resemblance to the hijab. For Muslim women in France and Quebec where the local laws ban people from wearing religious symbols in public, yet mask mandates are enforced emotions run especially high. After Vogue France posted images of the actress Julia Fox with a headscarf in its roundup of Fashion Week on social media, the publication received backlash and an influx of users’ comments threatening to unfollow the account.
Face masks once thought of as too editorial or avant-gaarde for most customers have been popping up in the collections of indie designers such as Zana Bayne or 2017 LVMH Prize-winning designer Marine Serre for years. Serre has used them perennially in her apocalyptic designs, creating a functional anti-pollution mask in colloboration with R-Pur in 2020. As our air quality worsens due to environmental disasters and new variants emerge, it no longer seems so far-fetched to see face masks becoming parts of our everyday wardrobe and by extension self-expression much like the rest of our wardrobe.
Love it or hate it masks and balaclavas are not likely to be going away any time soon. The global pandemic and our growing desire for anonymity in an overexposed culture where everything we do and say is recorded for social media (sometimes without our consent) have created an environment ripe for fashionable face coverings. As more people continue to grow accustomed to wearing them as part of their everyday routine, it’s understandable why these products will continue to evolve with them. Consumers’ growing desire for customization, luxury (in the form of designer produced creations), and the inevitable fast fashion replicas will thrive in this newly created space, much like they already do for the rest of our wardrobes.