Friday 12 January 2024

The Turban in Fashion by Kathryn Gauci


Doris Kenyon

We’ve all seen glamorous photographs of Hollywood stars like Greta Garbo looking stunning in her turban, yet Hollywood was not the first to make the turban all the rage. What began as a long piece of cloth wrapped around the head, usually fully covering the hair, the turban has a long and varied history. The earliest origins reach back as far as 2350 B.C. found on a Mesopotamian sculpture of Assyrian or Sumerian origin. From this time onward, it appears in artworks from India to Turkey, through Central Asia, and into Africa. It is known that the prophet Mohammad (570-632) wore one, known as Imamah, emulated by Muslims devotees, kings and scholars, thereafter. The Imamah consists of a cap with a cloth around it, often still seen in parts of Africa today. 

Luigi De Servi (Italian, 1863 - 1945) Portrait of An Arab Gentleman


For the most part, the turban is linked to religion, and a particular colour denotes the significance of a rank or tribe. In India, it is referred to as a pagri (headdress). Pink is associated with spring and worn for marriages; saffron is associated with valour and sacrifice, and white with peace.

 The Interior of the Chora Church, Istanbul

There are many examples of turbans worn in Byzantine times. Byzantine soldiers wore them and there are Greek frescos in Cappadocia with figures depicted in a style still worn by their ancestors centuries later. 

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri better known as (il) Guercino Italian Baroque painter (1591-1666)

In the United Kingdom, turbans were worn by men and women since the sixth century, but it is mostly through the great paintings of the Renaissance, and Dutch, Belgian, and German masters, that we really came to know them. This is due to intrepid travelers and diplomatic and trade exchanges with the Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal empires of the East – the spice and silk routes that brought us far more than the turban. 

One of the first and most famous images of the turban being worn as a fashion accessory in the west was in the iconic Dutch painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring by artist Johannes Vermeer painted  in 1665. The oil painting features a European girl wearing an exotic dress, a large pearl earring, and a turban tied around her head, thought to be inspired by Turkish traditions of the time.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by artist Johannes Vermeer


Eugene Francois Marie Joseph Deveria - Odalisque,1840

Eléonore de Montmorency
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Giuseppina Grassini in the role of Zaire - 1805, detail

Niclolas de Nicholy, Melchoir Lorch, J.B. Vanmoor, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Miss Julia Pardoe, and La Baronne Durand de Fontmagne, took the oriental fashions back to Europe, eventually giving rise to what is known as Orientalism and which took the Western world by storm in the 18th, 19th, and earlier part of the 20th-century. Even though many Orientalist ideas are filled with Western ideals, there does remain some truth in the original fashions of the time.

Suleiman the Magnificent
The Ottoman turban went from being something enormous, as depicted by Mehmet I and Suleiman the Magnificent, to something much smaller and more practical. Women in particular wore them with grace and panache; the finest materials were often enhanced by a jewels or feathered aigrettes. 


  Turban with tall feather aigrette, designed in 1911 by Paul Poiret.

Jewelled gold aigrette in the form of a carnation belonging to one of the Ottoman sultans. Aigrettes were attached to turbans as ornaments, and also presented as gifts by the sultans to foreign rulers and statesmen.

Whilst the turban itself, particularly in the case of a man, may have been plain, the cloth that covered them certainly was not. The Ottoman house had rooms had plenty of decorative wall niches and one was reserved for the turban. When not in use, it would be covered with an exquisitely embroidered cloth. The base could be fine linen, silk, or wool. Exhibits in the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul vary in size, but they are almost always square. 155x155 cm, 110 x110 cm, etc. 

18th century embroidered turban cover


Detail showing embroidery motif of a turban cover

The compositions show a highly decorative small round centre, and around that, in the body, are intricate repeating patterns, either singular, or intertwined. The embroidery thread is silk, white or gold metal-wrapped silk, and the stitches anything from running stitch, satin stitch, contour stitch, or tambour work. These were given as gifts and of the highest quality and beauty. It’s often possible to tell who they belonged to by the motifs. An admiral might have a cover decorated with ships, while a military pasha might have tents.

Mahmud II

The turban went out of favour in the 19th century when Sultan Mahmud II attempted to modernize the empire. It was replaced by the fez until the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1925. Sultan Abdülmecid, Sultan Abdülhamid II, Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II followed suit.

Meanwhile, in Western fashion, the turban was gaining popularity. In her book, Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyle, author Georgine de Courtais traces its popularity among fashionable Englishwomen, saying, “For ‘full dress’… some kind of headdress or cap was considered almost essential... the turban in some shape or form was by far the most popular form of headwear (between 1790 and 1810).” Some women’s magazines in the 1820’s referred to them as matronly, but The Ladies Magazine would inform its readers that turbans, “continue in undiminished favour” as late as 1835.

From  a series of Costume Parisian fashion plates of  the 1790s to 1820s


Georges Lepape, Denise Poiret released from the golden cage at 'The Thousand and Second Night' party, 1911, gouache.

Despite all that went before, the glamour of the turban exploded with fashion designers like Paul Poiret, and the appetite for the “exotic” in the burgeoning film industry. Here, we also have to acknowledge the extraordinary splendor of the Indian Maharajahs with their rich culture and penchant for opulence, particularly when it came to jewels. 

  Maharaja of Patiala, Yadavindra Singh.

According to an account by Alain Boucheron on his family business in the book “The Master Jewelers” that was cited in the Times: "The flamboyant Maharajah... arrived at Boucheron's in 1927 accompanied by a retinue of 40 servants all wearing pink turbans, his 20 favorite dancing girls and, most important of all, six caskets filled with 7571 diamonds, 1432 emeralds, sapphires, rubies and pearls of incomparable beauty.”

Lily Damita

Etta Lee (1906 - 1956) This Hawaiian-born actress had a successful career in early Hollywood spanning the 1920s - 30s,

Naturally, this explosion of cultures quickly caught on and was sought by the wealthy fashionistas of the first half of 20th century, who took it to glamorous heights. The couturier, Madame Grès, who created dresses for Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh, Barbra Streisand, and many others, loved to decorate her head with turbans. Elsa Schiaparelli was another couturier who wore it.  

Madame Grès
Greta Garbo

From the 1900’s onward, this was also a time when there was a plethora of fashion and movie magazines, which showed how to wear it. Along with the popularity of sewing machines in many households, this now meant the turban look was possible for the less wealthy. Everyone aspired to look like a Hollywood glamour girl.

Lana Turner. The Postman Always Rings Twice

How to tie a turban. 1920's tutorial

Even WWII could not stop the turban look. In France, the French milliner, Madame Paulette, (Pauline Adam de la Bruyère) is credited with reviving the turban, claiming to have been inspired by the designs she saw on French girls cycling the streets of Paris during the war. She later went on to create hats worn by Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich,  and Greta Garbo. Although the hat still remained popular in Europe throughout the war, the wearing of a turban was helped by the fact that women were working in manual jobs in factories and farms. The turban was a design that could be created with minimal sewing skills and helped to conceal the hair when access to hairdressers, shampoo, and even water, was limited.

"How a British Woman Dresses in Wartime Utility Clothing". Official wartime  photograph

The Ministry of Information in the UK showcased a turban as part of a series of photographs to promote possibilities for wartime chic during a period when utility clothing rationing interrupted the traditional fashion industry. While DIY turbans were easy to construct – a wartime British Pathé film even demonstrated how to make a selection of designs with a couple of knotted scarves as part of its Ways and Means series – many materials used for making hats were excluded from the worst rationing strictures during the war, and this may help to explain the rise in whimsical hat styles for those who could afford them.

After so many changes, one might ask – is the turban here to stay? Will it become popular again? With all its designs, textures, practicalities, and global influences, I think so.

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