There is an acute sense of self-preservation in the air this womenswear season. The usual buzz of excitement surrounding fashion month has been underpinned by an unsettling atmosphere, a feeling caught somewhere between the jittery bouncing of a leg and full scale panic. Is it any wonder? The very basis of fashion month relies upon the gathering of large crowds in close proximity, and as coronavirus continues to strike, anxiety has set in. Coughs and sneezes are eyed with suspicion, and the exaggerated kiss-both-cheeks-twice method of greeting favoured by the fashion set has been exchanged for a polite yet self-contained nod. The fear is real and understandably so given the rising death toll and confusing medical recommendations. As such, precautions have been implemented. Leading designers like Giorgio Armani have postponed their live shows to reduce the risk of contagion, and others from Gucci to Ralph Lauren have pre-cancelled future shows. Bottles of hand sanitiser were gifted at the Paco Rabanne show and face masks were distributed at Dries Van Noten, the likes of which have become the unintentional accessory of the moment across major cities worldwide.
Coincidentally, this feeling of self-preservation and, in a way, vulnerability was paralleled on the runway this womenswear season. Across the board, shows emulated a sense of self-protection in the form of headwear, from The Row in New York; to Shrimps in London; Gucci and Max Mara in Milan; and Marine Serre, Maison Margiela, Kenzo and Comme des Garçons in Paris. Balaclavas were the most popular accessory, but these were also accompanied by snoods, veils and even fully structured head canopies.
The protection of the head is something innate. From birth, there is an awareness of its vulnerability. As newborn babies, the posterior fontanelle (the spot on the back of the head) is as soft as meringue and must, therefore, be cradled gently. As children we hide our heads underneath the futile protection of a duvet for fear of what imagined monsters lurk in the dark of our bedrooms, and when we do encounter real traumas and tumbles in the playground, our hands and knees bear the grazes, in our automatic response to protect our heads. ‘Don’t forget your hat!’ our parents cry as we run to a snowball fight. ‘Don’t forget your helmet!’ we hear before mounting our first bikes. The symptoms of many common childhood sniffles occur largely in the head and, as such, we have known long before coronavirus to avoid touching our faces with unwashed hands at risk of welcoming in hostile germs.
Indeed, there’s something childlike and comforting in the cocooning of the head this womenswear season, and yet there’s also an underlying sense of savvy militant protection. Balaclavas ranged from the sweet to the aggressive. At Shrimps, the opening look saw a face peep sweetly from a creamy knitted piece, and at Gucci, pastel fluffiness coddled heads like puffs of cotton wool. At The Row, tightly fitted balaclavas were accompanied by streamlined tailoring and neutral colours, reminiscent of the swaddled infants found in the arms of rigid mothers in medieval paintings.
Nevertheless, there is another more obvious and certainly more sinister historical reference point to these balaclavas – chainmail. One of the earliest pieces of protective headwear– the ancestor of the balaclava if you will–the mail coif was made from rivets of flexible steel and closely covered the head, neck and throat, protecting warriors from injury during the Middle Ages. Aside from protection, armour also signifies hostile intentions. If a gang of blokes turned up at your castle drawbridge wearing chainmail, you knew they meant business. Indeed, Timothée Chalamet modelled a particularly fetching mail coif, shielding his fabulous fuckboy hairdo, during his battle scene as a young Henry V of England in The King (2019). This concept of armour was echoed in Kenzo’s grey woollen snoods, the chunky knit comparable to the chainmail's metallic links. Similarly, Max Mara’s detachable hoods covered the head and neck in a similar way to the traditional mail coif and were styled with overly padded coats reminiscent of body armour, designed to shield against the rain.
But why this sense of warrior-like protection? Other than the growing threat of coronavirus, adding to the recent unsettling atmosphere, Harvey Weinstein’s trial finally reached its long-awaited conclusion last week, where he was found guilty of a criminal sexual act in the first degree, and third degree rape. He was, however, acquitted of other sexual assault charges that could have sent him down for life. Some felt that full justice had not been served, and for many, over the two years since the first allegations were made public to the final sentencing, the case served to trigger memories of their own experience with sexual abuse and violence. The context of the #MeToo movement adds an extra strand to the unified sense of armament lacing the womenswear shows.
Interestingly, the severity of balaclavas varied throughout the shows. Marine Serre’s ranged from those simply covering the head and neck, to the fitted, full-face types commonly sported by cartoon bank robbers clutching dollar-stamped sacks. With similar military connotations as the mail coif, the black, full-face balaclava is reminiscent of those worn by contemporary soldiers and police. Whilst it offers no real physical protection other than warmth, it does offer something perhaps even more significant – the concealment of identity. Regarding a secular member of the public, however, what could possibly be behind the wish to conceal one's identity? Is it necessarily prompted by sinister motives, as is often cited in tabloids? Or is it motivated by something much more concerning: protection of privacy? That basic human right is, after all, becoming strained nowadays. Recent technological advancements have allowed mass public surveillance to ramp up to a dystopian level. New and sophisticated facial recognition technology is being increasingly used in everyday life, from an alternative to traditional forms of ID (widespread in China) and unlocking iPhones, to identifying criminals (as used by the Metropolitan Police in London) and attendance tracking on student campuses in the US: all of which have prompted concern; the latter sparking outraged protests.
There’s certainly a sense of 'Big Brother is watching you' about the whole facial recognition scenario, and beyond a violation of privacy, the technology also harbours the potential to have much darker impact on society. Digital rights organisation Fight for the Future explains on its website that, 'facial recognition surveillance programmes identify the wrong person up to 98 percent of the time. These errors have real-world impacts, including harassment, wrongful imprisonment, and deportation.' In this vein, wearing a full-face balaclava might seem as though you're being threatening but perhaps it's becoming a necessary accessory for the protection of basic human rights.
On a much needed silver lining, at least we can still make it fashion. Dress for the dystopia you want, right? Attending an upmarket soiree and need something a little less severe than a black woollen number? Maison Margiela have you covered (literally) with their A/W 20 decortiqué lilac face masks, sporting cut-out holes just large enough to cram a mini goats cheese tart in your mouth. If you are feeling particularly daring, however, you may wish to splash out on a full set of gauzy head curtains from Comme des Garçons. The beauty of these is that from behind the mass of veiled head scaffolding, you can actually subtly do some spying yourself, à la your elderly neighbour peeping through the net curtains to survey the cul-de-sac.
So, whilst chainmail is a thing of the past, the protective feeling that encompassing headwear can provide is something still relevant today. In a society fraught with tension–from privacy violations, systematic corruption and abuse of power, to killer viruses–a desire for comfort, and in equal measures, armour, is palpable. Fashion is, for the most part, reactionary and so the significant appearance of cocooning balaclavas, snoods and veils on the runway this season is testament to a greater feeling of unease. If coronavirus and facial recognition technology use grow more widespread, what's to stop designers tackling these very real fears further for S/S 21?