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If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be lusting after a balaclava, I wouldn’t have believed you. There are only two times in my life I’ve ever worn the cosy head covering: paired with a matching red-and-white jumper when I was around a year old, and when I was 15, hurtling down Grouse Mountain on skis towards an unsuspecting beginner’s class. Both times I looked like a literal condom. Which is to say that, in theory, the balaclava would typically be a hard miss for me. But I can’t get it out of (or the desire to have it on) my head.
Dressing like a six-year-old on the playground during break time in January has become this season’s coolest trend. A quick scan of sites like Zara, The Frankie Shop, and Aritzia show that cosy balaclavas are very much in, and more often than not, selling out. They’re popping up on Instagram and on the autumn/winter 2021 runways, in street-style photos from a variety of European fashion weeks (which as anyone involved in fashion knows means they’re officially chic), and even on nightclub dance floors (true story from a friend). “Balaclavas are a mix of all the major emerging trends: cosy knitwear, maximalist accessories, and nostalgia dressing,” says Shakaila Forbes-Bell, in-house fashion psychologist for Afterpay, an online installment payment program.
While the trend may be taking over the world, for those of us in icy climates, keeping your head warm on your commute or your mid-winter SAD walk just makes sense. Practicality is the reason Marie-Eve Proulx, the owner of Montreal-based brand Odeyalo, started making balaclavas in 2020. She took leftover cotton fabric from the bigger pieces in her lines, like cardigans, and turned them into neck-and-head warmers to help her battle the cold temps (stylishly) while biking and doing outdoor activities like snowshoeing.
“I needed to have something close to my head [for warmth], but I also thought it was an interesting fashion accessory,” Proulx tells Refinery29. “I’d seen many balaclavas, for biking especially, but they looked very athletic. I was looking for something a bit thicker and that was versatile so that I could wear a hat over it or I could bring it down and wear it just as a neck warmer.”
Balaclavas are a mix of all the major emerging trends: cozy knitwear, maximalist accessories, and nostalgia dressing.
Shakaila Forbes-Bell, Fashion psychologist
This emphasis on comfort and functionality in fashion is, like many things RN, a large part in thanks to the pandemic. Almost 18 months at home in sweats means that as we re-enter the world, we’re looking to meld both comfort and style — and recognising that we can have it all: something stylish that actually keeps us warm. (There’s a reason North Face and Patagonia fleeces are having a moment.) “We’ve seen a global adoption of the athleisure uniform this year and people finding themselves getting into the habit of shopping for what makes them feel good rather than what society has deemed conventionally appropriate,” Forbes-Bell says. “Balaclavas are functional pieces that can be played with to create edgy looks without compromising comfort.”
Emerging alongside the trend for athleisure post-pandemic is a love of maximalist dressing, tied to a desire to play and experiment with personal style after not being able to. “Maximalist dressing goes hand-in-hand with this push to dress for yourself and experiment with personal style,” Forbes-Bell confirms. This is known as “dopamine dressing.” I’ve written about this before. It’s the psychological lift we get from the clothes we wear and speaks to the idea that often what people choose to put on their bodies helps to fulfil an emotional need.
Which makes sense, especially when I consider my new balaclava obsession. Maybe it’s because people wearing them usually look warm and cosy, or because it reminds me of being a kid and wearing whatever the hell you want, but I’m personally drawn to them because it makes me happy to see people in them — and to think about how I’d style one myself.
And balaclavas do feel like a unique experiment with personal style. While they may be a staple on ski slopes, runways, and in Drill culture, unlike the trickle-down effect of other high-fashion trends like “Bottega Veneta Green,” which can easily and subtly be incorporated into everyday outfits to varying degrees of high-fashion, balaclavas feel extra because they look extra. They’re in your face, literally. And in a time when much of fashion trends are leaning towards less is more (think low-rise jeans and teeny tiny corset tops), topping your look off with extra layers of any kind is a choice.
Plus, they’re a great way to update your winter wardrobe without spending thousands on that Saks Pott coat. “We have the same coat for years, but if you have this super fun and colourful accessory, it’s not a big investment in terms of money and then you get a whole new look,” says Proulx.
Forbes-Bell recommends truly leaning into it and going for a bold colour or print with your balaclava, something that’ll stand out and can be styled with all neutrals (I’m particularly in love with this yellow one from Odeyalo that reminds me of a literal beam of sunshine). I haven’t purchase a balaclava of my own, but chances are that when I do, I’ll most likely, once again, look like a condom. The only difference this time? In the spirit of post-pandemic, dress-for-yourself, dopamine dressing: I really won’t give a shit.
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