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Babushka scarves are having a moment. How did ASAP Rocky launch the unlikely trend?

It’s the street style trend no one saw coming. We unpack the marriage between rappers and babushka scarves, once and for all.

20 May 2019

After suffering a face gash in a razor scooter accident (true story), American rapper ASAP Rocky started wearing what he dubbed a “babushka” to cover it up. While this headpiece is common in Eastern Europe, thanks to Rocky, the word “babushka” — or, as he says, “babooshka” — is now taking on a whole new meaning in the rap world.

What is most surprising is that the trend took off in the first place — and continued to make headlines — long after the scar on his jaw succumbed to plastic surgery. Although the style initially appeared to be clickbait, Rocky’s adoption of the “babushka” raises important questions about who gets credited for cultural trends and the role authenticity plays in that process.

Russian fans were quick to comment on Rocky’s Instagram, urging him to come to Russia and “flex with our grandmas”

As he told GQ, he first tried out the look when filming an interview with Trevor Noah, in which he wore a yellow handkerchief on his head and Band-Aid on his jaw, both to cover up the cut from his wheelie-gone-wrong. The look really took off when Rocky turned up to the LACMA’s 2018 Art and Film Gala in November, wearing a high fashion replacement for the handkerchief — a silky, floral head scarf from Gucci, knotted under his chin, of course.

“I just want to show off my babushka today, honestly,” ASAP Rocky told reporters in the interview that started it all. “I’m just encouraging all guys to wear babushkas from here on out. Silk gang, silk city, you know how we do it. Gucci, yeah.”

Rocky’s outfit quickly went viral, capturing the attention of the streetwear and high fashion worlds alike. Highsnobiety described the rapper’s “old lady flex” as “arguably his best look” and “the boldest yet in terms of curb-stomping gender expectations.” At i-D, Vice listed it as one of the 12 looks that defined 2018. Articles about the “babushka” later appeared in W magazine and Vogue.

Of course, Rocky did not pioneer the look. “Babushka” is a homage to the Russian platok, a staple piece of headgear for grandmothers in Eastern Europe. English speakers have often misidentified the scarf as a “babushka” (which means “grandmother”), even before Rocky adopted it.

The word “babushka” conjures images of the headscarf-sporting old ladies known for accosting people in the streets for not dressing warmly enough, or selling flowers and berries outside of metro stations. They’re often spotted with a colourful, floral scarf wrapped around their shoulders or knotted under their chins, covering their heads. They’re a stereotypical Eastern Bloc phenomenon that makes you think back to peasants and Orthodox Churches.

Image: Zlatimir Arakliev
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But this has been changing in recent years, as fashionable young Russians have adopted the platok trend, using colourful headscarves to top-off everything from street style to haute couture. That being said, the trend never really took off in Russia or abroad — until Rocky popularised the look.

The failure to make the platok happen in Russia could be because the look is too familiar there — or too outdated — to make an impact. By comparison, Rocky taking it on was audacious, and the resulting trend came about almost by accident. High fashion has been all about nonconformity over the last few years, hijacked by mavericks like Demna Gvasalia at Vetements among others, and Rocky’s look inadvertently capitalised on the value of irony in contemporary fashion.

Other celebrities have since gone on to pick up the trend as well. Hip-hop artist Frank Ocean donned a headscarf for a “Facetime in Babushka” instagram post, to which ASAP Rocky commented “??BABUSHKA BOI”. Actress Chloё Sevigny and model Kendall Jenner also stepped out wearing their own versions of the headpiece.

Rocky even adopted a new nickname, adding “Babushka Boi” to his Instagram profile. But so far, Rocky’s new self-styling has worked without any overt association with Russian fashion and culture.

“I think what really made the scarf trend explode was, of course, ASAP Rocky’s outstanding sense of style, but also the fact of how far the original style trope had travelled from its origins,” explains writer and cultural critic Anastasiia Fedorova. “There were lots of images juxtaposing the rapper with Russian grandmas, Queen Elizabeth II, or glamorous upper-class ladies in silk scarves. It introduced wearing a Gucci scarf to a new audience.”

Now, typing #babushka into Instagram will lead you to 134,000 posts, featuring Moscow fashion influencers, Russian grandmothers, a smattering of stylishly streetwear-clad young men, and, of course, Rocky himself.

That being said, trends like this run the risk of erasing genuine cultural reference. This happened recently when a series of articles in the US press misattributed khachapuri, the Georgian national dish, to Armenia, sparking a controversy that did not escape the attention of The Calvert Journal. “Food can act as a gateway to discovering and exploring a new culture — and generally, it helps if you know what that culture is,” as Katie Davies wrote here. Swap “food” with “fashion”, “art”, or “design”, and the argument still holds.

In the case of Rocky’s clickbait headpiece, Dr Jennifer Wilson, a writer and academic specialising in Russian culture and politics, disagrees that the babushka scarf is inherently Russian. “It’s important to remember that head scarves are worn by women the world over. And this particular style, with the scarf tied under the chin, isn’t uniquely Russian,” she explains. “You can go back and see photos of Jackie O and Audrey Hepburn wearing scarves like this, and no one thought they were channeling Russian grandmothers.” Indeed, Rocky even told GQ that the original yellow handkerchief was inspired by the character Alfalfa from Little Rascals.

Image: @balkanasians

What makes the look more Omsk than old Hollywood is precisely the rapper’s insistence on calling it a “babushka” in spite of the lack of a Russian reference point. And according to Dr Wilson, that’s what makes it interesting. Her guess is that his decision to anchor the trend in Eastern European aesthetics is actually because Russian fashion is hot right now and “a lot of hip-hop artists are interested in designers like Gosha Rubchinsky.”

“It’s honestly quite fascinating to see hypebeasts combining the scarf with a tracksuit and Nikes,” adds Fedorova. “I think that’s precisely why ASAP Rocky and Frank Ocean are such fashion role models: they often demonstrate how style can push the boundaries of gender, style, and racial stereotypes.”

Russian fans were quick to comment on Rocky’s Babushka Boi Instagram post, urging him to come to Russia and “flex with our grandmas.” His new nickname was quickly transliterated into Cyrillic as Бабушка Бой. These fans will have to wait and see whether Rocky will bring his “babushka” to the motherland this year, when his Summer 2019 tour hits Moscow in July.

“Most of the Russian people I discussed ASAP’s ‘babushka’ look with found it hilarious, myself included,” says Fedorova. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe he just did that — and it looks so great!’”

Fedorova also stresses that the rapper’s misuse of the word “babushka” isn’t really a great fault. “All we can do is try to be more knowledgeable about the origins of different styles: it’s probably not ASAP Rocky’s job to know that ‘babushka’ is not the right word, but the big fashion titles certainly have to do their research better,” she points out.

As for Dr Wilson, she’s still waiting on the collab. “I wouldn’t be surprised if ASAP Rocky tries to partner with a Russian designer on a line of these scarves,” she says. “I’d wear one.” Wouldn’t we all.

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