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Balaclavas. Ski Masks. Shiestys. High Fashion or High Crime?

A ski mask has been deemed the ultimate winter accessory and a staple in Beyoncé’s winter look on one end of the cultural zeitgeist, but a growing number of political and police officials see it as a polarizing symbol of crime. 

Philadelphia City Council passed a bill that became law this month, banning ski masks pretty much everywhere – parks, schools, city-owned buildings and public transportation. Potential offenders will face up to a $2,000 fine if a crime is committed while wearing a mask. With crime reaching all-time highs in the District of Columbia and officials desperate for a remedy, Washingtonians are speculating whether D.C. is next.

District Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed a mask ban last month in the Addressing Crime Trends (ACT) Now Amendment Act of 2023, which drew many people expressing their opinions at a D.C. Council hearing that lasted well into the evening.

Both cities are part of a movement to ban masks around the country. At least 10 jurisdictions in states such as North Dakota, Virginia and Ohio have implemented bans. Cities like Atlanta have also introduced such proposals.

‘The Catwalk Survival Solution’

Ski masks or balaclavas first rose to fashion fame when Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty, who is known for his southern gangster rap, began wearing head coverings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Back In Blood” rapper posted up in the accessory regularly helping popularize the trend around the nation and eventually earned the masks a new name, “Shiesty,” in his honor. 

Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, ski masks leave most of the face a mystery with only three holes for the eyes and mouth, while balaclavas leave more of the face exposed. 

While the masks have become more negative among politicians, high fashion can’t get enough of them. “With its apocalyptic, bleak connotations and protective, concealing qualities, the balaclava is the catwalk survival solution to moving forward into an uncertain future,” Ella Alexander wrote in Harper Bazaar.

The headgear is a staple on the runway and in street style. Some of the culture’s most popular fashion houses including Balenciaga, Calvin Klein and Gucci have all sent renditions of the style down the runway in the last few years.

Lyst, a global shopping company, reported that web searches for the headgear jumped 344% between 2021 and 2022. The platform later selected the balaclava as one of the hottest products during the final quarter of 2021 based on search data collected from Google, Instagram and Depop, a resale platform. 

But at their core, ski masks offer practicality. GQ attributes the balaclava’s utilitarian roots to Ukraine as British troops wore them to keep their heads warm during the Crimean War battle in 1854.

Skis Masks in the DMV

Balaclavas, which are also known as ski masks, have been a winter staple for Washingtonians long before they were associated as a catalyst for crime or a fashion statement.

“Ski masks have been a thing in the DMV,” said Khai Pinkston, a 23-year-old D.C. native, who remembers seeing Washingtonians wearing them most of her life.

“They would wear them to school especially during the winter time because it kept your face warm,” Pinkston recalled, “and then they would kinda roll it up on their heads and wear it as a headband so it could easily go back and forth.”

Many northerners have put their own spin on ski gear as winters can be notoriously harsh in the Northeast and Midwest. In New York City, it’s Moncler or Mackage puffer coats. In cities across the northeast and midwest, it’s masks.

“I see ski masks as a way to keep yourself warm, especially with rap culture and what we see from celebrities that a lot of these young kids look up to,” says Lyric Jernigan, a North Philly native. “They utilize ski masks as an item to add to your overall outfit.” 

Popular culture icons and stylish celebrities like Future, A$AP Rocky, Rihanna Gunna, Ye (also known as Kanye West) and Beyoncé have all sported the headgear. 

In some cities, ski masks are considered a classic rather than a trend. 

“It’s part of our culture and it’s something the boys just wear like middle schoolers, high schoolers, young adults – like they always just had ski masks on their heads, especially in the winter time,” Pinkston says, recalling winters in Washington. “I remember Helly Hansens used to be a thing, and Helly Hansens were like known for having the jackets for skiing and like harsh winter. So, we were always wearing Hellys and a ski mask and the big Nike boots.” 

Crime in the District and Policing Fashion

An easy way to hide any identifiable features, a number of crime suspects have been wearing ski masks while stealing cars, robbing businesses and even during shootings.

Public safety, the reason Philadelphia council members passed the mask ban 13-2, is also a top priority for district officials. The city’s murder rate is the highest it has been in nearly two decades, carjacking is up by 100% this year and violent crime increased by 40% from 2022. 

Crime data is especially alarming for juveniles. In fact, juvenile crime seems to be all Washingtonians are talking about.


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