Different ways of wearing a balaclava
A woman modeling a knitted balaclava

A balaclava, also known as a monkey cap, balaclava helmet, ski mask or sheisty,[1] is a form of cloth headgear designed to expose only part of the face, usually the eyes and mouth. Depending on style and how it is worn, only the eyes, mouth and nose, or just the front of the face are unprotected. Versions with enough of a full face opening may be rolled into a hat to cover the crown of the head or folded down as a collar around the neck. It is commonly used in alpine skiing and snowboarding.


Similar styles of headgear were known in the 19th century as the Uhlan cap worn by Polish and Prussian soldiers, and the Templar cap worn by outdoor sports enthusiasts.[2][3]

The name comes from their use at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War of 1854, referring to the town near Sevastopol in the Crimea,[4] where British troops there wore knitted headgear to keep warm.[2] Handmade balaclavas were sent over to the British troops to help protect them from the bitter cold weather. British troops required this aid, as their own supplies (warm clothing, weatherproof quarters, and food) never arrived in time.[5] According to Richard Rutt in his History of Handknitting, the name "balaclava helmet" was not used during the war but appears much later, in 1881.[3]



Thin Balaclavas can be used under motorcycle, snowmobile, ski, and snowboard helmets for warmth in cool or winter conditions.


Balaclava worn during a snowstorm

Many skiers, snowboarders, cyclists, and runners wear balaclavas in cold weather for warmth. They protect the head, face, and neck from wind and low temperatures and can fit easily under helmets. These sports balaclavas can be full balaclavas, which cover the entire head leaving only the eyes uncovered, or half-balaclavas, which leave the forehead free, but cover most of the head. Key elements of sports balaclavas are that they are warm, windproof, and moisture-wicking.


See also: Racing suit and Anti-flash gear

Race drivers in Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile sanctioned events must wear balaclavas made of fire-retardant material underneath their crash helmets. In racing events, hill-climbs, special stages of rallies and selective sections of cross-country events entered on the International Sporting Calendar, all drivers and co-drivers must wear overalls as well as gloves (optional for co-drivers), long underwear, a balaclava, and shoes homologated to the FIA 8856-2000 standard.[6]


A rib-knit three-hole balaclava

Balaclavas are in certain contexts associated with criminality as gang members have used them to conceal their identity.[7] In 2004, police in Prestwich, England, began demanding that people on the street remove their balaclavas, describing the garment as "extremely threatening".[7] In 2008, police in Kent confiscated a copy of the War on Terror board game partly because of the inclusion of a balaclava, stating that it "could be used to conceal someone's identity or could be used in the course of a criminal act."[8]

Military and police

Afghan soldier wearing a balaclava

In South Asia, balaclavas are commonly referred to as monkey caps because of their typical earth tone colours, and the fact that they blot out most human facial features. Monkey caps sometimes have a small, decorative, woollen pom-pom on top. They are commonly worn by troops on Himalayan duty for protection from the cold.[9]

The United States Marine Corps has recently[when?] begun issuing balaclavas with hinged face guards as part of the Flame Resistant Organizational Gear program.[10][11]

In the Soviet Union, the balaclava became a part of standard OMON (special police task force) uniform as early as the Perestroyka years of the late 1980s. The original intent was to protect the identity of the officers to avoid intimidation from organized crime. Because of increased problems with organized crime of the 1990s, TV shots of armed men in black balaclavas became common. Armed Russian police commonly conduct raids and searches of white-collar premises (typically in Moscow) while wearing balaclavas. Such raids have therefore come to be known in Russia as "maski shows", an allusion to a popular comic TV show of the 1990s.[12]

Balaclavas are often used by police battling drug cartels and gangs in Latin America to conceal their identity and protect their families.[13][14]


Knitted balaclavas were featured in some collections at the 2018 New York Fashion Week.[15][16][17]

See also


  1. ^ "sheisty, adj. — Green's Dictionary of Slang". greensdictofslang.com. Retrieved 2023-11-22.
  2. ^ a b Chico, Beverly (2013). "Balaclava". Hats and Headwear Around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-1-6106-9063-8.
  3. ^ a b Rutt, Richard (1987). A History of Handknitting. Interweave Press. pp. 134–5. ISBN 978-0934026352. Archived from the original on 2022-02-10. Retrieved 2021-12-09. (Note that there is a misprint in the date of the Battle of Balaclava, which took place 1854, in the original edition cited here.)
  4. ^ Games, Alex (2007). Balderdash & piffle: one sandwich short of a dog's dinner. London: BBC. ISBN 978-1-84607-235-2.
  5. ^ Shepherd, John (1991). The Crimean Doctors: A History of the British Medical Services in the Crimean War. Vol. 1. Liverpool University Press. pp. 296–306. ISBN 9780853231073. Archived from the original on 2021-12-16. Retrieved 2019-08-15.
  6. ^ "Appendix L to the International Sporting Code" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2021-07-16.
  7. ^ a b Manchester Evening News (2004-08-12). "Gangs face arrest if they wear balaclavas". Manchester Evening News. Archived from the original on 2022-02-28. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  8. ^ "War On Terror board game seized by police". Cambridge News. Archived from the original on 2012-08-06. Retrieved 2021-07-16.
  9. ^ Ghosh, Subir (November 19, 2005). "Thanda lege jabey". Hindustan Times. New Delhi. Archived from the original on July 16, 2021. Retrieved July 16, 2021 – via Rajib Roy.
  10. ^ "Nothing "Sheepish" About Fire-Safe Fabrics" (PDF). Leatherneck Magazine. September 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 29, 2012.
  11. ^ "Flame Resistant Organizational Gear" (PDF). US Marine Corps: Program Manager Infantry Combat Equipment. August 24, 2007. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 16, 2012.
  12. ^ Kramer, Andrew E. (August 31, 2011). "Memo to Exxon: Business With Russia May Involve Guns and Balaclavas". The New York Times. Archived from the original on October 16, 2019. Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  13. ^ Sieff, Kevin (March 3, 2019). "It's so dangerous to police MS-13 in El Salvador that officers are fleeing the country". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 5, 2019. Retrieved March 5, 2019.
  14. ^ "Why anti-terror officers wear different clothes". BBC News. November 18, 2015. Archived from the original on March 6, 2019. Retrieved March 5, 2019.
  15. ^ "Balaclavas and hi-vis: we know what you'll be wearing next autumn/winter". The Guardian. March 8, 2018. Archived from the original on June 18, 2018.
  16. ^ "Achtung, die Vollmützen kommen!". Sueddeutsche.de. October 28, 2018. Archived from the original on December 12, 2019.
  17. ^ "Diese Gangster-Mütze ist jetzt cool – muss das sein?". Welt.de. August 28, 2018. Archived from the original on July 25, 2021.