The Duality of the Balaclava


Photo Credit: Sabrina Shaffer

With winter comes the emergence of layers-upon-layers of clothing, bringing interesting silhouettes and the option for many wacky and adventurous color schemes. Winter also brings scarves, gloves, and most recently, the balaclava into the forefront of must-have accessories. The balaclava, otherwise known as a ‘ski mask’, is a thick breathable garment that completely covers the head and most of the face, oftentimes leaving only the eyes unshielded. Originating in the Ukrainian town of the same name during the Crimean War in 1854, the balaclava was used by British war troops who had nothing but their ragged summer uniform to maintain body heat in an unforgiving and freezing climate. The practicality of the piece resulted in the normalization of Balaclavas in war uniforms, with the Soviet Union mandating Balaclavas within Red armies. Today, we associate balaclavas with terrorist organizations, SWAT teams, and criminals. Those who wear balaclavas are often perceived as non-conformist and dangerous.


Mask mandates have now normalized face coverings, giving rise to a newfound creativity and passion for masked pieces. Watching DIY videos of different shapes of masks and customizable fabric was all the rage at the beginning of the pandemic. People attempted to not only protect themselves from the virus, but also express who they were. The balaclava arrived onto the fashion scene at the perfect time.


With the fashion industry moving towards sustainable fashion that prioritizes recycling and upcycling, utilitarian fashion has become trendy. Techwear and gorpcore, sub-categories under Utilitarian, have become popular and imitable styles. The next big thing in 2022 might be modest fashion, one of the newest subcategories under Utilitarian fashion, marking a drastic shift from Y2K era thongs and low-rise jeans—an era that made a sartorial comeback in the past year.


Modest fashion has risen to greater prominence since Kim Kardashian debuted her 2021 Met Gala look, in which she was covered from head to toe in a black bodysuit and face mask. The original designer, Demna Gvasalia, is a Georgian whose collections consist of his own versions of balaclavas. Gvasalia believes the reintroduction of the balaclava to be a win for Eastern European culture. However, luxury brands like Prada are guilty of taking segments of this culture and profiting from it, with one balaclava being sold for just under$1,000. The balaclava has also trickled down from luxury brands to retailers like Urban Outfitters, Weekday, and Zara. With not-so-subtle undertones of cultural appropriation, luxury fashion brands have found inspiration through other cultures—cultures that are mostly marginalized and underprivileged in the United States and whose rich history is easily ignored.


Social media has caught onto this fashion trend as well—there are more than 274k posts on Instagram with the hashtag “balaclava,” and the same tag is attached to over 166 million views on TikTok. In fact, Tiktok’s algorithm has boosted the accessory even further into the limelight, as its popularity neatly intersects with another trend that has taken the platform by storm: crocheting. For You pages previously dominated by crochet tote bags and bucket hats are now flooded with balaclavas. Process videos–sped-up edits in which one small crochet square quickly transforms into a full balaclava–are highly popular in this realm of TikTok. Creator INGRATX (@ingrato.cl) specializes in these process videos, his designs ranging from pastel devil horns to psychedelic jester hats. The contrasting aesthetics shown in his designs showcase the multi-faceted appeal of the modern balaclava: the garment is grandma-chic with its chunky, knitted design, yet simultaneously apocalyptic and futuristic.


TikTok, besides serving as a platform to share DIY and styling videos, has been the site of much discourse concerning the controversial ethics of wearing a balaclava, especially in cultural and religious contexts. The balaclava resembles a hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women. While the balaclava has been co-opted as a trendy new piece by the largely white and wealthy fashion community, the hijab is still seen as taboo when worn by Muslim women—and therein lies the central issue. A white influencer wearing a balaclava is applauded and deemed as fashion-foward, but a Muslim individual wearing a hijab is discriminated against and viewed as culturally backward. For them, it is not a garment they can take on and off depending on profitable trend cycles. Similar garments can be viewed as quirky or oppressive, depending on the person wearing it.


Large brands on social media are not impervious to this insensitivity either: Vogue France uploaded a photo of Julia Fox wearing a headscarf to their Instagram with the caption: “Yes to the headscarf!” This post comes off as a gross show of privilege in light of France’s general attitude towards face coverings. The French Law of 2010–1192 prohibits concealment of the face in public spaces, through garments such as masks, helmets, and balaclavas. France is not alone in this type of ban; in the Canadian province of Quebec, Bill 21 prohibits public servants in “positions of authority”— including police officers, lawyers, and teachers— from wearing religious symbols during their work.


However, certain Muslim creators on TikTok believe the popularity of the balaclava is a signal of a progessive destigmatization of the hijab. However, we, ourselves, lean against the modern adaptation of the balaclava, as seen on social media. While neither of us are Eastern European or Muslim—and we recognize we cannot speak on behalf of these communities—as members of the AAPI community, we can relate to the issue of cultural appropriation in fashion. For example, the Qipao (旗袍) was taken as inspiration for Louis Vuitton’s collection in the early 2000s, which trickled down to contemporary fast fashion brands like Fashion Nova. There is nothing inherently wrong about wearing a piece from another culture, as long as it is done respectfully from an appreciative perspective. However, fashion designers and so-called influencers rarely approach cultural fashion from an inquisitive perspective. Ultimately, it is best for these influencers to refer to Muslim creators and community members for guidance, as they bear the consequences and collateral damage of these issues.


In a TikTok video posted last December, creator Maliha (@malihaness) stitched an earlier video praising girls who wear balaclavas with her own opinion: “Not if you are a muslim women, because you will get hate crimed— on a good day, you will lose your job; on a bad day, you will get stabbed. But you’re a skinny caucasian woman, you get to go down as a fashion icon.”

 

Mandy Sun is a freshman in the College and is undecided.

Sabrina Mei is a freshman in the MSB and is undecided.