After the last 18-months of mask-wearing, you would think that fashion would be searching for a release, or rebuttal of anything to do with the pandemic. However, for some designers, this has not been the case, and have been taking ‘face coverings’ to a whole new level. In other words, balaclavas are back.
Perhaps the most recent, major example of this re-emerging trend came from the 2021 Met Gala. Now that we’ve had time to digest the looks from the Met, one that has endured the quick-cycle of the media’s attention is Kim Kardashian’s Balenciaga ensemble. The instant subject of memes, DIY copycat looks and a fair amount of confusion, Kardashian’s undeniable fashion influence has once again permeated into the mainstream with this striking look.
View this post on Instagram
Designed by Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia, Kim was covered head to toe in black. The look consisted of a t-shirt, t-shirt dress, sleeves and full-face balaclava; so all-encompassing that it even led to speculation that it was Kim Kardashian in there at all. And now everyone wants one – the last week has enjoyed a global increase in searches for balaclavas after Kim’s Met look, with searches jumping 62% in the 48 hours immediately succeeding the ball, and up 45% week on week ever since.
So why are people looking to balaclavas? Well, apart from the discussed association to mandated mask-wearing, another potential draw is the allure of anonymity. Streetwear brands such as Corteiz have been creating a buzz around their latest drops by organising energised, scavenger-hunt style giveaways in Central London – all distributed by anonymous, balaclava-clad Corteiz representatives. The message is clear: the brand emphasises cohesion and community, rather than pedestalling an individual. Other potential draws to balaclavas include their cultural capital in music, as well as the more banal explanation of being warm for the upcoming winter.
View this post on Instagram
However banal their warming functionality might be though, the garment’s origins actually stem from the Crimean war, fought on exposed slopes of the Black Sea Coast. It was fought in bitterly cold conditions, and on the 25th October 1854, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan led the famous charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava. To keep the troops warm, especially when sleeping out, woollen helmets were issued which covered their heads and shoulders, save for a small part of the face. These pieces of headgear soon acquired the name “balaclavas”, after the battle.
In modern culture, balaclavas have become somewhat of symbols for gang culture in a reductive and problematic assimilation. When coupled with the meteoric popularity of streetwear, this has even spiralled to the point of mainstream controversy. Nike released a balaclava to major backlash, prompting them to pull it from the line. Those opposed to the selling of the item insisted that Nike was promoting and profiting from gang culture. Nike presented the balaclava on a black male model in their campaign, raising further concerns pertaining to racial stereotypes. Twitter users voiced their outrage, with user @MrDtAFC tweeting ‘THIS IS NOT RIGHT @nike @nikelondon / I think you’ve made a big mistake on this one, targeting the current Gang culture for profit, there’s 100’s of dead kids parents that you should be thinking about before you made these, let alone put them out for sale’.
Despite the potential controversy, in high fashion, balaclavas had a resurgence in AW18 collections. Designers such as Calvin Klein, Gucci and Preen all debuted balaclavas as integral aspects of their winter looks from that year. Raf Simons commented that to him, balaclavas were about ‘the notion of feeling safe’ as an ‘important reference for the feeling’ of his autumn collection. Meanwhile, Gucci injected glamour into them; showing balaclavas that were dripping with crystals, embroidered patches and pom-poms and paired with everything from floral printed coats to evening gowns.
More recently, Popcaan’s Unruly collaborated with The Daily Paper to create a heritage capsule collection, including a balaclava. The collection was inspired by Jamaican biker culture, with each item adorned with unique artwork and the Jamaican flag.
Either way, if the dramatic increase in global searches is anything to go by, expect to see them popping up again in fashion, street style and celebrity attire for the coming weeks.