The Implications of NYFW’s Balaclava Trend

The balaclava, a garment that echoes Muslim head coverings, has swept the fashion world. Noor Rahman '25 breaks down the trend's insensitivity and the discrimination Muslim women face for wearing hijab and niqab.

The balaclava, a garment that echoes Muslim head coverings, has swept the fashion world. Noor Rahman '25 breaks down the trend's insensitivity and the discrimination Muslim women face for wearing hijab and niqab. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From New York Fashion Week and the Met Gala to Urban Outfitters and TikTok, the trend that has swept Winter 2022 is the balaclava. Often made out of wool, cashmere, or even repurposed blankets, a balaclava is a high-fashion version of a ski mask. Some variations only cover the head and neck, while others cover the entire face. The balaclava was front and center at New York Fashion Week earlier this month, appearing on both the runway and the streets as celebrities donned these warm, cozy accessories to brave the New York winter.

However, the balaclava, as well as more general face and head coverings, are not unique to this season. Maison Margiela has featured face coverings in its shows since the 1980s, Gucci made them a hallmark of its Autumn/Winter 2018 show, and Calvin Klein adopted the trend at the beginning of the pandemic.

The true origin of the balaclava goes back to the mid-19th century, during the Crimean War, when European soldiers wore them to endure the Ukrainian winter; the balaclava was named after a battle site in Ukraine called Balaclava. During the pandemic era when comfort, practicality, and safety became the new stilettos, it makes sense that their traditional use has been repurposed for the runways.

Of course, the trend echoes another category of clothing worn by hundreds of millions of Muslim women globally: the hijab and the niqab. With global Islamophobia on the rise at both the institutional and interpersonal levels, the fashion industry’s sudden embrace of head and face coverings without acknowledging the oppression Muslim women face for wearing extremely similar clothing is tone-deaf and hypocritical.

Muslim women have faced discrimination for wearing hijab and niqab for a long time, but the global trend toward nationalism has exacerbated the issue. France has banned girls under the age of 18 from wearing hijab, prohibited parents wearing hijab from accompanying their children on school trips, and outlawed the “burkini,” a covered bathing suit made for Muslim women. For many, the prohibition of hijab brings to mind France’s colonization of majority-Muslim African countries. During the Algerian War of Independence in the late 1950s, for example, the French Army organized public ceremonies in which Algerian women were forced to remove their head coverings and burn them, which were followed by speeches promoting the liberation of Muslim women.

Discrimination toward Muslim women wearing hijab is not limited to France, however. Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi ran on a campaign that was fundamentally based on nationalism and hatred towards Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the Indian population. Earlier this month, Indian courts banned hijab in school, sparking national protests. In the United States as well, there have been various incidents of Muslim women being discriminated against for wearing hijab. For example, in October, in Maplewood, New Jersey, a seven-year-old girl’s hijab was forcibly removed by her teacher.

The ease with which non-Muslim women in the fashion industry can sport the balaclava despite the danger Muslim women face daily for wearing functionally the same garment is striking, and the lack of acknowledgement of this double standard from anyone within the fashion industry is appalling.

For a long time, the luxury fashion industry has equated ultimate female liberation with showing skin. The corresponding belief that choosing to cover up is old-fashioned and indicative of a lack of freedom has infiltrated celebrity culture and mainstream fashion choices. Besides being indicative of the rampant hypersexualization of women in Western culture, this foundational axiom has made it difficult for many groups of people — specifically Muslim women — to enter the industry. Consequently, there are very few voices within the industry able to point out the appropriation of Muslim culture that is perpetuated by the trend of the balaclava.

At best, the new trend is a hypocritical indifference to discrimination. At worst, it is a mocking middle finger to the millions of women who have chosen, in the face of physical danger and government-sanctioned oppression, to define female liberation for themselves by staying true to their faith. Either way, the message from the fashion industry is clear: covering your body is oppressive if Muslim women do it, but practical, comfortable, and trendy if anyone else does it.