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A balaclava //, also known as a balaclava helmet or ski mask, is a form of cloth headgear designed to expose only part of the face. Depending on style and how it's worn only the eyes, mouth and nose, or just the front of the face are unprotected. Versions with 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.
During the Crimean War in 1854 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. 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. Today the military version is known simply as a "helmet liner".
Electrical workers often wear an arc-flash rated version in conjunction with a face shield and other PPE while working on energized equipment.
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, socks and shoes homologated to the FIA 8856-2000 standard. Drag racing drivers usually wear balaclavas with just eye holes because of the increased fire risk.
In the Indian subcontinent, balaclavas are commonly referred to as monkey caps, due to 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.
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. Due to increased problems with organized crime of the 90s, TV shots of armed men in black balaclavas became a staple of sorts. As the organized crime went down, however, balaclavas became an instrument of intimidation as much as identity protection, as they don't allow one to see the facial expression of the enforcement officer or identify him conclusively. 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 popular comic TV show of the 1990s.
A balaclava may be used for concealment in the course of illegal activities and occupationally by SWAT and special forces personnel. It may also be used by irregular military forces or paramilitary organizations to conceal their identities and have been used as an identifying feature in fictional representations of such groups. The Provisional Irish Republican Army is known for its members wearing balaclavas in every situation.
British Police in Kent confiscated the War on Terror board game partly due to the inclusion of a balaclava. Police said it "could be used to conceal someone's identity or could be used in the course of a criminal act".