It started with Alexander Wang, where they were neat and black, with discreet white logos. Calvin Klein, Preen and Matty Bovan soon followed, with the ultimate seal of approval coming courtesy of Gucci — here, they were enormous, embroidered, multicoloured and lace-adorned. I’m talking, of course, about balaclavas: AW18’s most divisive trend. If you don’t believe me, ask Rihanna — she wore the black intarsia Gucci number complete with crystal embellishments to Coachella earlier this year. But wearable for us mere mortals? We’ll see.
In a way, the balaclava is a shrewd fashion investment this season — it’s not often you can own the statement piece of autumn for just a little over 300 quid. When Rihanna wore her Gucci one, it sold out insix days. Bovan put balaclavas on the catwalk for his first standalone show in February. “The idea of a balaclava, to me, is protection, like trekking across the Yorkshire moors,” he says. “It’s functional and also streamlines and elongates the head and neck, which I love. It has an illustrative feel.”
I decided to road-test two. The first, a relatively understated white cashmere hood from Preen; the second, a full-coverage, riotously patterned, pompom-bedecked Gucci monster — the grande dame of face furnishings, the big daddy of the balaclava world.
I should admit here that I’m no balaclava virgin. Home, for me, is split between London and Switzerland, so I’m well versed in cold-weather gear, from long johns to thermal pants and, yes, balaclavas. On the side of a mountain in -14C, they become not so much a fashion statement as a survival necessity.
However, print deadlines necessitated I conduct this experiment in August, during one of the hottest UK summers on record. The 30C heat aside, I was surprisingly comfortable in the Preen and can imagine wanting to wear it on chilly December mornings. It didn’t blow off like a hat might, and my neck was toasty without the need for a bulky scarf. In the office, I was protected from the brutal air-con, which normally has me shivering at my desk by noon.
Lunchtime heralded the hour of reckoning — it was time to get the Gucci on. Considerably wackier than my training balaclava, it covered my whole face, with only my eyes and mouth visible. On my way outside, I accidentally flicked my pompoms into the face of a man from accounts; when I turned to apologise, he backed away from me in fear. Navigating my way out of the building was tricky, as I found my peripheral vision almost completely obscured.
After an ill-advised tussle with a sandwich in Pret — you should not attempt to eat anything more than a very thin breadstick in this — I headed back. This time, the looks came thick and fast: some were amused (a group of tourists laughed their heads off, pointing and taking photos), some confused, and others downright alarmed.
There are tricky connotations to a balaclava. For many, it conjures images of terror and anarchy, concealment and disguise. From the classic, cartoonish depiction of burglars in striped tops and black balaclavas, to Pussy Riot and their fluoro-bright iterations, the balaclava is politically and socially loaded. Nike was criticised last month for selling a “menacing” version that many said could incite gang violence (it has since been removed from the brand’s website). When travelling home that evening, I could sense other people’s agitation in the packed Tube carriage and felt guilty for it.
Back in the confines of my flat, I put the Gucci back on for an evening in with a takeaway, watching Bake Off reruns (don’t judge me). By the time Mary and Paul were inspecting Victoria sandwiches, I had taken it off. I was absolutely boiling, I couldn’t see the whole screen and my skin was starting to feel fairly itchy after a day clad in tight wool. Meanwhile, the thought of facing another meal through the mouth slit was too much to bear.
For a relatively small accessory, there’s no doubt a balaclava can suggest a lot. While it can make you look distinctly unnerving, it can also convey the opposite: nothing says fireside cosy like an Alpine-inspired number. I’m sure that much of the backlash (balaclash?) I experienced when I was wearing mine was down to the incongruity, given the blazing-hot summer’s day. Despite the discomfort and many, many strange looks, I’ll always be a fan — after all, I’ve grown up in one in the cold and snow. Mine, a black, cotton-and-wool one, may not be multicoloured and pompom-ed (maybe I’ll upgrade), but it does the job. Come December, I’ll be sporting it proudly in Switzerland as usual — perhaps this year, it will even make it back to London in my suitcase.