As It Happens·Q&A

Why balaclavas have become a fashion trend during the pandemic

Balaclavas are the perfect fashion craze for terrifying times because they “create a barrier, whether that's psychological or physical,” between the wearer and the world, says GQ magazine's fashion critic.

GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian says we're 'increasingly seeing our clothing as a kind of armour'

A model sporting a balaclava walks the runway during the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring Summer 2022 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 22, 2021, in Paris, France. The winter accessory has increased in popularity during the pandemic, says GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian. (Kristy Sparow/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Balaclavas are the perfect fashion craze for terrifying times because they "create a barrier, whether that's psychological or physical," between the wearer and the world, says GQ magazine's fashion critic.

The winter garment that covers the head and most of the face has seen a major resurgence in recent years on the runways, the streets and social media feeds, according to an article by CNN Style reporter Leah Dolan.

It's origin can be traced back to the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War of 1854, when British troops wore them to keep warm, and they are often associated with soldiers and militias, especially in Eastern Europe, Dolan writes.

But these days, you're as likely to see them sported by models, celebrities, social media influencers and everyday folks in fashion-forward cities like New York. 

GQ fashion critic Rachel Tashjian spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the cozy pandemic trend. Here is part of their conversation. 

I know it's pretty cold in New York right now. Have you been sporting a balaclava as part of your 2022 winter look?

Yes. In fact, I have been sporting a balaclava as well as the balaclava-adjacent fashion trend, which is the babushka. So yes, I'm definitely indulging in this trend.

And what is the difference between a balaclava and a babushka?

Balaclava is a more fitted, very often knit, hood-like garment that you would be able to see most of your face through.

Whereas a babushka is a scarf that is triangular and tied around the head and cinched under the chin. 

On the left, a model rocks a babushka at the Max Mara Fall/Winter 2021-2022 show during Milan Fashion Week in February 2021. On the right a model sports a purple balaclava during the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring Summer 2022 show as part of Paris Fashion Week in June 2021. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images/Max Mara, Kristy Sparow/Getty Images)

Do you think [the use of masks during the pandemic is] one of the reasons these are so popular right now?

It's maybe the reason for this sort of mass popularity of them, or maybe even acceleration of the popularity.

If you look at runway fashion from even like four years ago, so like 2018, you really did start to see a lot of balaclavas and even face masks. Particularly with the Georgian designer Demna [Gvasalia] who is now the designer of Balenciaga, but at the time was designing for a brand called Vetements.

Demna was born in Georgia and grew up during the era of Soviet warfare in the late '80s and early '90s. And there's a sense of, when you look at those collections, like a real menace. And one of the ways that that manifests is through the use of these balaclavas….That brought this kind of real aggression and attitude into fashion that we hadn't seen in a long time. 

A number of rappers were obsessed with Demna and still are to this day, one of whom, of course, is Kanye West, and he was an early adopter of this trend. And also A$AP Rocky.

But we've seen such an acceleration, I think, with experimental fashion, and I think also this idea that at this point, who the heck cares what you're wearing as long as you're warm and comfortable? 

Rapper YG wears a black balaclava to the GQ Men Of The Year Celebration on Nov. 18, 2021. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

And it's a unisex thing, too, right?

Absolutely. I mean, one of the other big references for young women is the image of Audrey Hepburn in the film Charade. In the opening scene, you know, she's wearing this incredibly chic balaclava that's designed by the couturier [Hubert de] Givenchy.

I think we tend to think of it as sort of associated with warfare or being sort of militaristic. And it certainly does have that association. But there is this very glamorous, like mid-century sort of jet-set, Switzerland, Aspen, French Alps kind of attitude that it can carry off as well.

There was that thing at the Met Gala, where Kim Kardashian basically wore a head-to-toe balaclava with her face covered too. Is that part of this?

It definitely is. So, in fact, that was an outfit that was created by the designer we were discussing earlier, Demna.

And what was so interesting about that was the way that he had fully shrouded this woman who is like the most recognizable woman in the world. He shrouded her completely in black and created essentially this giant void of celebrity silhouette, which was quite an interesting statement.

And, in fact, the designer wore a similar outfit as well, and he spoke about how it was a meaningful way for him to sort of disappear and express his frustration or discomfort with being photographed.

I think we all, you know, have had such a changing and shifting relationship over the past two years now with being out in public, with seeing each other, [and] with interacting with other people. And this is certainly … a garment that allows you to sort of feel a sense of protection and even kind of create a barrier, whether that's psychological or physical, from the rest of the world.

Kim Kardashian attends the 2021 Met Gala in a black ensemble that covers her entire face and body. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

We're talking obviously about the cold winter days and how useful this is. But I know fashion folks are always looking forward. Is there going to be a summer version of a balaclava?

It's an interesting question. I mean, I did see a number of people at the beginning of the pandemic when, you know, masks were in short supply, tying Hermes scarves and vintage silk scarves around the bottom of their face over their noses and mouths. So I think people are being very creative with the things that they have at their disposal.

Trying to find creative ways to protect and express yourself, I mean, I think that's something that will become ever more a part of fashion as we see this kind of explosive sense of self-expression, particularly in cities and in young people who are, you know, using TikTok and Instagram to sort of push fashion trends and fashion boundaries.

But also this desire that we all have to, I think, feel a sense of comfort and protection, and increasingly seeing our clothing as a kind of armour.

Rachel Tashjian is a fashion critic at GQ magazine. (Matt Martin/GQ)

The fact I now know that balaclavas are a fashion trend makes me feel that it's probably on its way out soon. How long is this going to last?

Trends moves so quickly because of social media now that they almost don't go away. You know, anything can be revived at any moment in time.

There's this perennial debate that's been happening for like five or six years now about whether or not bootcut cut jeans and low-rise jeans are coming back and what kind of jeans are in trend. And in fact, every kind of jean is on trend right now.

I really don't see it disappearing, particularly because it does have the potential to look sort of unusual or avant garde. You know, even if everyone is wearing it, it's still never going to quite be a staple in the way that a puffer jacket, let's say, is a staple. 

And for that reason, I think its sort of novelty means that it's going to be around for a long time. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by John McGill. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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