Balaclavas haven’t seen this much excitement since the Crimean War (where, in 1854 during the Battle of Balaclava – referring to the town of the same name in the Crimea – British troops wore them as emergency headwear when things got a bit chilly). Since then, they’ve been a pretty unpopular accessory, mostly reserved for ski resorts and bank robberies. But niche no more: knitted headpieces – balaclavas, hoods, bonnets and the like – have been enjoying a big moment. Searches for “balaclavas” are at an all-time high according to Google Trends, and everyone from Shein to Shrimps is selling one.
It was 2018 when Raf Simons showed a series of knitted hoods as part of his dystopian AW18 Calvin Klein collection (the same year Gucci showed retro ski masks alongside that disastrous blackface jumper design) and the year after his Raf Simons x Templa balaclava collab was endorsed by A$AP Rocky.
Slowly but surely, we’ve since all caught the bally bug. In 2021, Miu Miu gave us deconstructable helmets in pastel-coloured crochet (shot by super-stylist Lotta Volkova, who Weekday named their own balaclava design after), Givenchy’s sexier pointy-eared hoods and Virgil Abloh’s genius optical-illusion numbers for his penultimate Louis Vuitton collection.
And at this week’s men’s AW22 shows, the trend showed no sign of slowing down. Cue: Loewe’s face-framing heart-shaped designs, Y/Project’s metamorphosing jumper-hoods and Wooyoungmi’s vast array of knitted headpieces.
But what mysterious forces have we got to thank for the trend?
Let’s start with the bubbling interest in Soviet style. TikTok has blown open western access to Slavic creators, seeing aesthetics like “Russian bimbo” trend alongside insights into life after the USSR. Meanwhile, industry tastemakers like Volkova, born in Russia, and Balenciaga’s Georgian creative director Demna Gvasalia, have steadily help popularise Soviet fashion trends through their collaborative styling and design work. It was in 2018, too, when Gvasalia’s former label Vetements showed a collection of baseball caps swathed in babushka scarves. Like its silky sister, the balaclava is steeped in Eastern European history – these hooded silhouettes are a nod to growing interest in the region.
Then there’s Kanye West’s very public balaclava era – less “Slavs”, more “surveillance”. How does an A‑List celeb sneak into his daughter’s birthday party without being seen? Ah, yes, a balaclava will do it. The same goes for his ex Kim Kardashian’s 2021 Met Gala look: her full Balenciaga bodysuit, co-designed by Ye and Gvasalia, was tailor-made for attention, not privacy. In an era of anti-maskers and hijab bans, it’s almost as though covered faces are the last taboo.
TikTok would agree. Its #balaclava tag has racked up 141 million views, seeing Gen Z knitwear brands go big alongside viral commentary on the hypocrisy of face-covering trends. As @malihaness points out, we can’t forget that marginalised groups, like Muslim women and Black men, are still vilified for the very same headwear that’s trending now.
In the UK, young Black men have long worn balaclavas to protect themselves from police discrimination. It’s a practicality that’s trickled up into the drill scene, where balaclavas form a key part of the aesthetic, and the streetwear brands, like elusive West London label Corteiz, that surround it.
But 2022 isn’t all doom and gloom. Knitted balaclavas and hoods are also the product of a joyful surge in DIY knitwear ushered in by the pandemic – see DIY knit brands like ROWS, which sells “knit-your-own” balaclava patterns. “People needed things to keep their hands and minds occupied,” says Tatyana, owner of independent knitwear brand Tattyarner, which she started during the initial lockdown.
Unlike more minimal, streetwear-inspired styles, many of these young designers are creating pieces with joyful maximalism. Accessories that do it all are practical, yes, but they can also be pretty extra (take Ingratx’s circus-like designs, which regularly draw in millions of views).
In many ways, knitted headwear feels like the perfect Gen Z accessory. Knitwear represents the ultimate sustainable option at a time when we are more environmentally conscious than ever. Not only is there the option to use sustainable fibres but, as Tatyana explains, “With fabric, you’re always going to get cut-offs, but knitwear is tailor-made to each person, so you only use what you need.”
Plus, their multi-functionality speaks to a longer-term need for versatile clothes. Scarves that can act as hats, face masks and earmuffs, too, feel like a very practical “fuck you” to the overconsumption that’s wrecking the planet (despite the fact that every fast fashion retailer out there is selling them).
There’s no denying 2022 has a certain apocalyptic air to it. We need clothes that can help us fight and woolly headpieces are an unlikely secret weapon. Saving the planet? Forgot your face mask? Cold? Gotta hide from the paps, or the police? Balaclavas have, quite literally, got you covered.