Why Are Scarves, Balaclavas and Head Wraps Suddenly the Height of Fashion?

“They can mean so many things to different people.”

Photograph by Maripol; Styled by Nora Milch. Hair by Ramsell Martinez for R+Co at Lowe & Co.; Makeup by Lottie for Dior at Lowe & Co.; Models: Kara Fitzgerald at the Lions, Woan Ni at The Industry Model MGMT, Nyamam Majok “Adeng” at Wilhelmina, Mariina keskitalo at Freedom Models; Photography Assistant: Jean-Philippe Boucicaut; Fashion Assistant: Natalie Shemian.

Fashion Week can be a schismatic affair, as polarizing as that Internet meme a few years ago that divided the world between those who saw a white and gold dress and others who perceived it as black and blue. No such dissension this season. Designers are universally in agreement, even if it is about arguably the most divisive of trends: covered hair.

Off the top of one’s noodle, it’s hard to recall a season in which heads have been such a focus of attention. There were enough balaclavas on the runways to rival a Pussy Riot rally—most notably at Calvin Klein, where the designer Raf Simons showed homespun Fair Isle versions, and at Gucci, where Alessandro Michele proposed knitted half- and full balaclavas, as well as an assortment of hats, masks, and baroque headpieces that brought to mind bedazzled hijabs. Meanwhile, Alexander Wang, Preen, and Sportmax tested the waters with snug sportif styles that suggested a life aquatic; Marc Jacobs dramatically framed the face with scarves that tied under the chin; and Richard Quinn, Queen Elizabeth’s new BFF, obscured his models’ faces with chintzy motorcycle helmets and wildly printed scarves that recalled the riotous motifs of Vera, the mononymic American scarf and fabric designer from the 1960s and ’70s, via Balmoral Castle. Elsewhere, there were so many turbans, hooded dresses, and snoods, channeling everyone from Russian grannies to Grace Jones, that casual observers might have been forgiven for thinking that they had wandered into the Headwrap Expo. (Yes, this actually exists.)

“Fashion people love a mask,” says Telfar Clemens, the New York designer and 2017 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner, whose partially meshed balaclavas this season are cut to reveal his curvilinear logo. “They can mean so many things to different people, so they’re a great shorthand for designers to communicate all sorts of craziness.”

Few designers have used head coverings to more perversely madcap effect than Walter Van Beirendonck. A serial booster of balaclavas and all manner of masks (latex, leather, wrestling, tribal) since he started showing in the mid-’80s, the Belgian designer recently co-curated the “Powermask” exhibition at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands—a dialogue between masks and artworks from the museum’s permanent collection and contemporary pop culture and fashion pieces. “Everyone has a connection to masks, from dressing up as a child to more recent images of masked terrorists on TV,” he said in an e-mail, adding that while his fascination stems from decades of research into folklore and ethnography, he is not surprised by their wholesale embrace. “Images of masks are everywhere, part of our daily life, so they’re bound to have an impact on creative people and be integrated into their work.” Indeed, covering up has become mainstream, possibly because of our collective sense of Armageddon, as well as for more lighthearted reasons, such as Rihanna stepping out at Coachella in, say, an embellished Gucci balaclava, or Lindsay Lohan and Nigella Lawson flaunting today’s equivalents of Victorian neck-to-knees swimwear.

Semaphoring everything from submission to men to subversion of the Man, head coverings are also a smart commercial move, thanks to the rise of the “modest fashion” market. Last year, Muslim consumers alone spent an estimated $255 billion on clothing, a number that is projected to grow to $370 billion by 2021—nearly as much as the combined clothing markets of the U.K., Germany, and India. This might explain why, in addition to the season’s balaclava-rama, Uniqlo and Nike, for example, have teamed up with Muslim designers and athletes on hijab lines; Dolce & Gabbana has a standing abaya and hijab collection; and Oscar de la Renta and Tommy Hilfiger have trialed one-off collections during Ramadan.

For all of the fashion industry’s noble attempts at inclusion, there are clearly other forces behind the current masquerade. For starters, the air of mystery conferred by head coverings is an antidote to the oversharing familiarity of social media—a modesty filter, if you will. “There is a global quest to explore multiple identities, exposed and hidden, in our time of almost constant public exposure,” says Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen, an art historian and a co-curator of the “Powermask” exhibition. “Björk and Sia wear masks and head coverings during their live performances not only to create a persona but also to protect themselves against overexposure.”

Still, it’s not without a hint of exasperation that women might greet the wholesale return of head-covering accessories. After all, the head scarf has been banned and mandated, embraced and rejected (as a sign of both liberation and oppression) so many times that it’s a wonder anyone can keep up. And as recent controversies over the banning of burkas and burkinis on European beaches suggest, the question of appropriate concealment is still a religious and cultural hot-button issue.

Yet some see the season’s suggested head coverings as feminist gestures. Backstage, many designers could be overheard waxing lyrical about empowering one thing or another. For their fall collection, inspired by the matriarchal society of the haenyeo divers of South Korea, Preen’s Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi showed cashmere balaclavas that alluded to the divers’ rubber gear, in an attempt to liberate earthbound women from the tyranny of elaborate hair and makeup. “The way our balaclavas frame the face allows you to see the pure beauty without vanity or style,” the pair said in a statement. “There is something about pulling back on the exaggerated form of beauty we are seeing a lot of, with selfie-style makeup techniques of shading and contouring, and focusing instead on the natural framing of the face.”

That many of these styles come with a built-in frisson of menace doesn’t hurt, either. As Telfar Clemens notes dryly, “Everything is a little bit freaky right now, so if you’re surrounded by thieves, dress like one too so they don’t rob you. Women have to put up their guard.”