Scroll through Instagram, TikTok, or Pinterest this winter and you’ll see thousands of young faces framed inside what looks like an overgrown knitted sock. The balaclava, sometimes referred to as a ski mask, has become an unusual sartorial staple – and a late entry into the race to claim 2021’s hottest fashion trend.
Usually made from wool, mohair, or some form of yarn, the helmet leaves room for a large hole for the face or just for the eyes. On TikTok, at the time of writing, 102.6 million videos are attached to the hashtag “#balaclava”, while another 248,000 people on Instagram have posted to the quirky accessory. Interest is also on the rise on Google, with the question “how to knit a balaclava” having risen by over 5,000% in the past 12 months, likely thanks to Gen Z’s favorite pandemic hobby.
“Recent designs of balaclavas like Stella McCartney through to those currently on sale at Zara are fueling demand for all ages,” Jessica Payne, fashion manager at Pinterest, said via email. She noted that searches for balaclavas had jumped 230% since early November.
The balaclava is the basic knitted item for winter on every catwalk and social media feed. Credit: Edward Berthelot / Getty Images
The accessory has become a winter favorite, in part because of its convenience in a world where masks are mandatory. “I think (the trend is) 90% due to the fact that people are now more comfortable having part of their face covered,” commented one user on TikTok. “This trend fits so well into the pandemic,” agreed another.
But balaclavas have also been a mainstay of the podium this year, from the hallucinatory checkerboard style mask of the late Virgil Abloh to the avant-garde touch of Givenchy with knitted devil horns. Perceptive-eyed fashionistas may also remember the accessory from the Miu Miu runway show at Paris Fashion Week last March, where he appeared with slip-on dresses and snow boots against the backdrop of the Italian mountains of the Dolomites. Balaclavas have also featured in recent collections by Moschino, Balmain, Marine Serre and Raf Simmons before making their way to brands like Urban Outfitters and Weekday.
The late Virgil Abloh dressed models in balaclavas during the Louis Vuitton men’s show during Paris Fashion Week in June. Credit: Dominique Charriau / WireImage / Getty Images
But not all ski goggle reinventions have been successful. In 2019, Gucci removed its controversial “balaclava sweater” and issued an apology, after critics saying the black and red design looked like blackface.
So where did the balaclava come from and how has it captured the imaginations of some of the industry’s top designers?
Historically, the balaclava is more often associated with war tactics than with trail trends. These masks take their name from the Ukrainian port city of Balaclava, the scene of a battle in 1854 during the Crimean War, where British and Irish troops were sent to fight Russian soldiers in freezing conditions. Morale during the war was low, not least because the British Army arrived with nothing but their worn summer uniform. When news of this scandalous lack of supplies returned to the UK, British women began to knit full-length hats for their men and ship them to the barracks.
The knitted headgear has since become the symbol of the Eastern European militia after it was used by pro-Russian separatist protesters to avoid surveillance. To many, they read as markers of threatening and unconventional behavior, but in recent years more whimsical connections have been made, with candy-colored and bunny-eared versions easy to find.
Balaclavas have a military history, stemming from the Crimean War in the 19th century and which continues today. Credit: Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Getty Images
But the balaclava is just one example of fashion inspiration recently drawn from the Eastern Bloc. In 2017, young Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy was considered one of the most exciting names in menswear for his designs reinventing post-Soviet youth culture: Cyrillic phrases.
According to Rachel Tashjian, resident fashion critic at GQ, the balaclava bubble probably started around this time in 2018 thanks to luxury streetwear brand Vetements, co-founded by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia (known as Demna), who also heads the creative direction at Balenciaga. (At the Met Gala this fall, Demna dressed Kim Kardashian West in a black bodysuit and full face mask). At the time, Vetements released an accessorized collection of militant balaclavas and floral silk scarves wrapped around baseball caps.
It was “all the rage in Eastern Europe with a delay of 20 years,” Tashjian said by email. “The attitude of the collection was both menacing and grandmother, the result of rebuilding flea market clothing from other periods into something new.”
Demna Gvasalia and Kim Kardashian showed up at the Met Gala last September with their faces fully masked. Credit: John Shearer / WireImage / Getty Images
There’s no denying that we’re seeing a resurgence in appreciation for the Slavic style, with searches for the phrase “Russian aesthetic” on Pinterest in the UK in the week of December 7th alone. Nostalgia for post-Soviet culture has also boiled over social media for the past two years. The hashtag #sovietaesthetic has 4.7 million views on TikTok, filled with videos of young teens romanticizing brutalist architecture and imagining the melancholy vibe of life after the fall of the USSR. Many videos were recorded by Belarusian synth-pop trio Molchat Doma, who in 2020 rose to fame when their music went viral on the app overnight.
As for the chunky knitted garment that’s currently holding your Instagram feed hostage, it could stick around for the foreseeable future. According to influencer and trend forecaster TikTok Mandy Lee, that ticks several boxes, from the “accessible trend” of DIY knits, to the “apocalyptic” or “glamorous” look, depending on how it’s styled, a- she said in a video on the app. . It’s also very functional instead of a winter hat and scarf, she added, which could help extend its lifespan.
“Usually trends that serve a purpose end up lasting longer in the cycle,” she commented, adding, “(The balaclava) makes me really horny.”
Top image: Influencer Maria Barteczko, wearing a black hooded beanie by Weekday during a street style shoot on November 19, 2021 in Cologne, Germany.