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A balaclava //, also known as a balaclava helmet or ski mask, is a form of cloth headgear that covers the whole head, exposing only part of the face. Often, only the eyes, or eyes and mouth, are left exposed. The name "balaclava" comes from the town of Balaklava, near Sevastopol in Crimea, Ukraine.
During the Crimean War, knitted 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. References to these hats were not written during the war itself; according to Richard Rutt in his History of Handknitting, the name "balaclava helmet" first appeared much later, in 1881.
In modern American English, when made for those serving in the armed forces, they are usually known as "helmet liners". They are traditionally knitted from wool, and can be rolled up into a hat to cover just the crown of the head, or folded right down as a collar around the neck.
Motorcyclists also wear one under their safety helmets for similar reasons; balaclavas also help to keep the inner lining of the helmet clean.
Most commonly firefighters will wear a fire-resistant balaclava, otherwise known as a Nomex Hood, when responding to a fire call along with their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and bunker gear (protective clothing). This balaclava covers the head and neck, with an open face; typically covered by the mask portion of the SCBA. This is used to help minimize the risk of potentially fatal burns to the upper back, neck, scalp and face.
In Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile sanctioned events, racing drivers must wear balaclavas made of fire-retardant material underneath their crash helmets in order to improve protection in case their car catches fire, and commonly cover the nose and mouth to reduce inhalation of smoke and fumes. Drag racing drivers usually wear balaclavas which have just two separate 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.
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".
A balaclava may also be used for concealment purposes, in the course of illegal activities by criminals, 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 has been used as an identifying feature in fictional representations of such groups.