Scroll on Instagram, TikTok or Pinterest this winter and you’ll see thousands of youthful faces framed within what looks like an overgrown knitted sock. The balaclava, sometimes called a balaclava, has become an unusual sartorial piece and a late entry into the race to claim the hottest fashion trend of 2021.
Typically made from wool, mohair, or some form of yarn, the headpiece leaves room for a sizable hole for the face or just the eyes. On TikTok, at the time of writing, there are 102.6 million videos attached to the hashtag “#balaclava”, while another 248,000 people on Instagram have posted information about the unusual accessory. Interest has also increased on Google, with the question “how to knit a balaclava” growing more than 5,000% in the past 12 months, likely thanks to Generation Z’s favorite pandemic hobby.
“The recent balaclava designs from Stella McCartney to the ones now on sale at Zara are fueling demand for all ages,” Jessica Payne, Pinterest’s fashion manager, said via email. He noted that searches for balaclavas have increased by 230% since the beginning of November.
The balaclava is the knitted winter staple on all runways and social media feeds. Credit: Edward Berthelot / Getty Images
The accessory has become a winter favorite, partly because of its practicality in a world where masks are mandatory. “I think (the trend is) 90% due to people feeling more comfortable now with a part of their face covered,” commented one user on TikTok. “This trend fits so well with the pandemic,” agreed another.
But balaclavas were also a mainstay of the runway this year, from the hallucinating take on the late Virgil Abloh’s checkerboard-style mask, to Givenchy’s avant-garde touch with knitted devil horns. Keen-eyed fashionistas might also remember the accessory from Miu Miu’s Paris Fashion Week show last March, where it appeared alongside petticoats and snow boots against the backdrop of the Italian Dolomite mountains. Balaclavas also appeared in recent collections by Moschino, Balmain, Marine Serre and Raf Simmons before making their way to brands such as Urban Outfitters and Weekday.
The late Virgil Abloh dressed models in balaclava style at the Louis Vuitton menswear show during Paris Fashion Week in June. Credit: Dominique Charriau / WireImage / Getty Images
But not all reinterpretations of the ski goggle have been successful. In 2019, Gucci withdrew its controversial “balaclava sweater” and apologized, after critics alleged that the black and red design resembled a black face.
So where did the balaclava come from and how did it capture the imaginations of some of the greatest designers in the industry?
Historically, the balaclava is more often associated with war tactics than with runway trends. These masks are named after 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 a worn summer uniform. When news of this scandalous lack of supplies returned to the UK, British women began knitting full-length hats for their men and shipping them to barracks.
The knitted headdress has since become the symbol of Eastern European militia after being used by pro-Russian separatist protesters to avoid surveillance. For many, they read as indicators of menacing and offbeat behavior, but more outlandish connections have been made in recent years, with candy-colored versions and bunny ears readily available.
Balaclavas have a military history, stemming from the Crimean War during the 19th century and enduring 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 that reinvent post-Soviet youth culture: skinny, minimalist track suits decorated with nothing but big brand logos. 1990s zeitgeist (think FILA and Kappa) and Cyrillic phrases.
According to Rachel Tashjian, a GQ resident fashion critic, 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 leads the creative direction of Balenciaga. (At the Met Gala this fall, Demna dressed Kim Kardashian West in a black leotard and full face mask.) At the time, Vetements released a collection accessorized with militant balaclavas and florid silk scarves wrapped around baseball caps.
It was “Eastern European style with a 20-year delay,” Tashjian said via email. “The attitude of the collection was equally threatening and grandmother-like, the result of reconstructing flea market garments from other periods into something new.”
Demna Gvasalia and Kim Kardashian showed up at the Met Gala last September with their faces completely blacked out. Credit: John Shearer / WireImage / Getty Images
There is no denying that we are experiencing a resurgence of appreciation for the Slavic style, with searches for the phrase “Russian aesthetic” peaking on Pinterest in the UK just the week of December 7th. Nostalgia for post-Soviet culture has also spread to social media in the past couple of years. The #sovietaesthetic hashtag has 4.7 million views on TikTok, filled with videos of young teenagers romanticizing brutalist architecture and imagining a melancholy atmosphere of life after the fall of the USSR. Many of the videos were made by the Belarusian synth-pop trio Molchat Doma, who rose to fame in 2020 when their music went viral on the app overnight.
As for the bulky knitted garment currently holding your Instagram feed hostage, it may be around for the foreseeable future. According to TikTok influencer and trend forecaster Mandy Lee, tick more boxes, from the “accessible trend” of DIY knitwear, to the “apocalyptic” or “glamorous” look, depending on how it’s styled, she said in a video about the app. It’s also highly functional in place of a winter hat and scarf, he added, which could help extend its life.
“Trends that serve a purpose usually end up lasting longer in the cycle,” he commented, adding, “(The balaclava) makes me really excited.”
Top image: Influencer Maria Barteczko, wearing a black Weekday balaclava during a street style shot on November 19, 2021 in Cologne, Germany.