The Battle of the Balaclava: how warfare attire became high fashion

The Battle of the Balaclava: how warfare attire became high fashion

by Juliette Eleuterio
6 min

Balaclava mania has become a behemoth in fashion, with everyone and their nans carrying the hooded accessory out of its warfare origins and onto streets. Favoured by bank robbers and shotters, the balaclava once ran long and deep in criminal circles – and its Hollywood adaptations – before it became a style staple thanks to a few visionaries and their unprecedented rebranding prowess.

One year into his creative directorship, Raf Simons presented the Calvin Klein 205w39nyc Fall/Winter 2018 collection, and it was disruptive in Raf’s typical fashion. For a designer whose most lauded work to this day remains the “Riot! Riot! Riot!” FW01 collection that platformed the ebullating anger of the neglected youth, accepting a job at the American superbrand Calvin Klein seemed like a rogue choice. 

But this FW18 collection gave the classic Americana aesthetic a run for its money, offering a dystopian alter-reality that would become true to some degree just a few months later, with Donald Trump’s raucous presidential election coming into effect. 

Calvin Klein ©

High-vis worker’s uniforms and oversized hazmat boots were recontextualised onto a runway setting, giving a new stylistic life to municipal clothing. The then-overlooked balaclava migrated from Aspen ski resorts, knocking out the beanies and scarves, to the urban city streets. 

Raf and Demna must have been reading the same history book, as VETEMENTS also showcased hooded accessories during its FW18 collection. Here, the balaclava manifested itself with granny-style floral prints, nodding to the popular head wraps worn by the grannies of the ex-Soviet Bloc that Demna grew up in.

It didn’t take long for the bally to be adopted by fashion’s biggest endorsers, including A$AP Rocky and Ye. It also caught the eye of other designers in following seasons, especially for FW22, where Gucci, Louis Vuitton, LOEWE, Y/PROJECT, Coperni, and Craig Green all put their spin on the piece.

However, the origins of the balaclava stems far from any runway, initially intended for a frosty no man’s land. Back in the winter of 1853 to 1854, the UK united itself with France and the Ottoman Empire to fight Russia during the Crimean War. The historic siege of Sevastopol posed a problem for British troops, who were held up eight miles out of the city at the Balaclava port, having to leave behind necessary supplies ahead of the rocky roads to Sevastopol. 

Reports of troubles, from starvation to frostbites, found their way back to mainland UK, where a public outcry shortly ensued. British women got together to summon a solution for their husbands-at-war, creating hats attached at the neck. Not so coincidentally, these headgears were named ‘balaclavas,’ but not before 1881, where the term ‘balaclava helmets’ was found in newspapers (having previously been referred to as the Uhlan cap or Templar cap).

Weldon’s Practical Knitter(Second Series) ©

Over time, the balaclava became a symbol of revolt, being adopted into Eastern European culture, made most culturally prominent through Moscow-based feminist protesters and  performance art collective, Pussy Riot. Apart from its popularity in the ex-Soviet states and within the world of snow-related sports, the balaclava went unnoticed by the rest of the world for the better part of its history.

The late 2010s to early 2020s completely flipped that notion on its head, and 2023 continues to be the undisputed year of the bally. In fact, ballies – and bally-adjecent gear such as a long scarf wrapped around one’s head, or Rocky-approved babushkas – have come a long way since their introduction.

Simone Rocha embellished the accessory with pearls and crystals, adding a feminine touch to the female creation, while Givenchy’s version boasted a leather visor component to further push its utilitarian nature. When it comes to the balaclava, anything and anyone goes, with countless versions here to serve countless styles. 

Though, its popularity on the streets isn’t just attributed to designer endorsements. Its construction offers a practical solution, blending the scarf and the beanie into one, as well as keeping other parts of the face warm during the bitter cold seasons.

The balaclava also acts as a mask, which explains its popularity amongst criminals. Of course, it isn’t just illegal activity that warrants hiding oneself, with the thought of ‘being perceived’ becoming an increasing worry for our generation. The fear of being seen, also known as scopophobia, makes complete sense for our screen-ridden generation. The amount of people we are now able to reach, as well as be reached by, is one our brain plainly cannot comprehend.

The fear of being perceived boils down to the fear of judgement, something all generations are privy to, though our generation’s fear is being amplified due to social media. Judgement and criticism, from the way you look to the way you act, has never been as streamlined as it is now with comment sections opening up the floodgates for everyone and anyone’s opinions. ©

For a moment in time, we lived in a certain anonymous state, with surgical masks becoming a legal requirement to step foot outside. Oddly enough, there was something quite liberating about being covered up – no one could judge your makeup-less face or that pimple on your cheek because it couldn’t be seen. For those who enjoyed the comfort of being practically invisible in a Covid mask, the balaclava offers the post-pandemic equivalent of concealment. 

The rise of social media and the ever-enduring selfie has created a hyper-identifiable reality. Profile pics and usernames match across all platforms; one’s identity isn’t just a Yellow Pages redirect, but a bankable asset. The balaclava is the unrivalled rebellion to our face-obsessed era.

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