Fashion

What a balaclava! Is the controversial headwear the new hoodie?


Yesterday, The Weeknd (AKA Abel Tesfaye) performed the most dystopian half-time Super Bowl performance in recent memory. In the final act, as Tesfaye sang Blinding Lights, he was surrounded by identically dressed dancers wearing whiteface bandages. For Tesfaye, the bandages were a a statement about celebrity surgery (via his hero Michael Jackson). But at at time when facial coverings have become a hybrid of “safetywear” and fashion, they also served as a comment on how we live now: covered-up, anonymised and defensive.

The Weeknd performs during the Super Bowl half-time show
Wrap star … the Weeknd and his bandaged dancers during the Super Bowl half-time show. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

A few days earlier, his former collaborator Beyoncé dropped a trailer for her latest Ivy Park Adidas range. The focus of the collection is elevated outdoorwear; early in the commercial, a balaclava is given pride of place. Adorned with diamonds, the balaclava on Beyoncé’s head seems as if it has been beamed in from a frozen post-Covid fantasy world.

Weather-wise, it is perfect timing for balaclavas to reappear: the snow has made them much-searched-for items. As has the pandemic: online searches for the term rose 59% between 2019 and 2020, according to digitaloft.co.uk. What’s more, fashion brands such as Celine, Raf Simons, Greater Goods and Stone Island x Supreme (which offers glow-in-the-dark ones) have made them practical and covetable.

Beyoncé’s bejewelled in the Ivy Park ad
Bedazzled … Beyoncé’s headgear in the Ivy Park ad. Photograph: YouTube/WeAreIvyPark

Beyoncé is no stranger to the headgear – or the multiple layers of meaning it carries. She wore a black one for the activism-themed Superpower video, a sheer one for the On The Run tour and a Louis Vuitton one on the set of her video for Bow Down. Another look in the Ivy Park collection seems to riff on the architecture of the balaclava and the hooded jacket.

A Raf Simons balaclava
Practical and covetable … a Raf Simons balaclava. Photograph: Raf Simons

It is an item that has always been associated with battle. Originally worn by British soldiers during the Crimean war to protect them from the bitter weather in modern-day Ukraine, they became associated in the 20th century with elite military forces such as the SAS. Beyoncé carries all those meanings with her when she wears one, transforming into her masculine alter-ego King B.

Beyoncé’s re-popularising of the item had dove-tailed nicely into the rise of warcore. The trend from a couple of years ago of wearing, amongst your layers, utilitarian clothing worn during times of war (such as faux-kevlar vests, “fishing” gilets and even harnesses).

King B in an Adidas x Ivy Park advert from January
Hard hat … King B in an Adidas x Ivy Park advert from January. Photograph: YouTube/Beyoncé

The balaclava also became a garment symbolising anarchy. Nike was criticised in 2018 for the introduction of a balaclava that was perceived to play on stereotypes of black youths and gang culture. The item was withdrawn, with Nike saying it was “part of a wider Nike Training collection, styled on different models and available in multiple markets around the world. We are in no way condoning or encouraging the serious issue of criminal and gang culture.”

A look from Marine Serre spring/summer 2021
Red hot … a look from Marine Serre spring/summer 2021. Photograph: Marine Serre/SIPA/Rex/Shutterstock

This racial subtext is something that Marine Serre, one of Beyoncé’s favourite designers, has toyed with and been accused of exploiting. Serre seems to like the contradictions: she has talked about the way her cornucopia of face coverings since leaving Maison Margiela reference the hijab and the niqab. Beyoncé certainly riffs on the racist misunderstanding of those items of modest clothing, which have been read as threatening to Eurocentric eyes, in parallel to the hoodie. Like the hoodie, the balaclava is unique in its multiplicity: protection, mystery and threat.

Nike’s Pro Hijab, designed for Muslim athletes
A step forwards … Nike’s Pro Hijab, designed for Muslim athletes. Photograph: Getty Images

Indeed, the normalising of the balaclava into every day wear can be read as a good indicator of our current, pandemic-era selves: disconnected and hidden from one another.





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