Suleiman the Magnificent

The Turban has a long and rich history, and in essence it is a head wrap that uses fabric of varying width and length which is is twisted and turned around the head. Based on the color, fabric and style of the wrap, it may vary from geographical location or culture, but the basic premise of the Turban construction remains unaltered. While this brief article will focus on the Draped or more millinery styled Turban, I will bestow a little history of the Turban upon you.

Origins of the Turban remain inconclusive; however, some of the ancient civilizations of India, Mesopotamia, Sumerian and Babylonian wore variations of the turban. The Islamic prophet, Muhammad (570–632), is believed to have worn a turban in white, deemed the most holy color.

Suleiman the Magnificent, the 10th Ottoman Sultan, and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520 until death in 1566) was painted with an elaborate white Turban and was known to have exotic feather plumes adorning the same. In India, the name Potia, usnisa, pag, pagri, safa, and veshtani are common names for the turban. The Sikhs, a community that dictates its followers to wear the turban, call it dastaar, while the Muslim religious leaders refer to it as the kalansuwa.

The Turban as a headdress in other cultures is not merely a fashion statement, it carries great symbolic meaning. It is used to identify with a cultural group, tribe or even community and it additionally serves as a cornerstone to one’s religious, cultural, political and social status. Correspondingly, the colors of turbans vary greatly from culture to culture, and are used to traject customs, values and ceremonial purposes.

The Turban as Fashion and the Draped Turban

The Turban as fashion was noted historically in European fashion in the earlier fifteenth century. While not hugely popular, some paintings can be traced to this time period of European women in court wearing a variation of the turban.

Fifteenth Century Burgundian Headgear/Turban

A draped turban or turban hat is a millinery design in which fabric is draped to create headwear closely molded to the head. Sometimes it may be stiffened or padded, although simpler versions may just comprise wound fabric that is knotted or stitched. It may include a peak, feather or other details to add height. It generally covers most or all of the hair. There are quite a few historical references and paintings in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which show garish head dresses that do resemble turbans, and most notably Vermeer’s 1665 portrait Girl with a Pearl Earring does come to mind.  However, the modern draped turban is popularly recorded as a fashion phenomena in the eighteenth century due to the increased trading, especially of textiles from India.  And once again, the Ottoman empire was also an influence of the draped turban, due to the widely popular writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montague (26 May 1689 – 21 August 1762), who was an English aristocrat, letter writer, poet, and wife to the British ambassador to Turkey. Lady Montague wrote extensively of her travels to the Ottoman empire and created somewhat of a craze in Britain for all that was Ottoman was again. I highly recommend looking her up and indulging in her writings.

Lucy Doraine (1898-1989)


While the draped Turban as a millinery design gained outlandish popularity throughout the 18th century, it became less bourgeois in the early 20th Century.  Paul Poiret, the so-called ‘Sultan de la mode’, included the turban in his revival of ‘oriental‘ styles in the early 1910s.  Designs were typically made of silk, felt or velvet and could be finished with additional details such as feathers or brooches. Hollywood Starlets in Silent Movies were seen parading in these beautiful, outlandish and exquisitely tailored, fine millinery creations alongside their exquisite ermine capes and shimmery jewelry.

Once the late 20’s arrived, the turban somewhat died out, giving way to the cloche. One often-credited success of the turban in the 20’s era was for functionality. The growing popularity of the motor-car made a turban the right choice!  The turban was seen as a protecting the hair from the elements, due to its formed fitting shape — and who would not want to be seen in a new motor-car in a magnificently decorated turban adorned with an exotic egret plume or a statement brooch!

After the cloche phenomena literally deemed the turban as inferior, the craze subsided. The later 1930’s once again saw the turban becoming au courant. In 1937, the turban hat was tipped as one of the “smartest models in the new millinery”, with new designs being shown in heavier fabrics such as velvet. (The Daily Times, Beaver and Rochester).  Hats and specifically turbans of the 1930s were fitting close to the head, as their earlier counterparts had, but their silhouettes grew steadily more elaborate.

The Turban Enters Popular Culture

The turban continued to remain popular in Europe throughout wartime — it was a necessity for many — women were working in factories and on farms and the turban (sometimes in a basic form) became a fundamental piece of head-wear for many.   The stiffness of millinery designs gave way to scarves wrapped into turban-like wraps.  It was a design that was easily modified — it could be created with minimal sewing skills and helped to conceal the hair when access to many staples, such as hairdressers, shampoo, and even water, were scarce. The Ministry of Information in the UK even went so far as to publish a series of articles and photographs for wartime chic during this time. A film demonstrated how to make a selection of designs with a couple of knotted scarves – many materials used for making hats were excluded from the  rationing during the war.

Turbans Go Hollywood

Ministry of Information

The inexpensive means to create a preponderant fashion statement during this time in history was a welcome breath of fresh air to women who were working hard on the home- front to keep the war effort seamlessly functioning while maintaining a sense of functional style.

With roots deeply embedded in European fashion, and deemed partly as necessity, the turban became all-the-rage and glamorous again when it started appearing on the heads of Hollywood starlets. The french designer Madam Paulette became the designer to the enchanting turbans seen on the silver screen by Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. Madame Paulette enjoyed unveiling the personality of each one of her customers (the self-effacing lady, the strong, dominant woman, the shy girl wishing she could be more confident, the peacock…), coming up with the perfect hat for her, and observing her reaction as she tried it in front of the mirror, stating that “the hat is more than an accessory; it is a behaviour.”  Also, of course, Lana Turner also created an iconic image with her turban in the blockbuster movie The Postman Always Rings Twice.  Hollywood was in love with the Turban!  And who could blame these Divas: it was glamorous, alluring, sexy and dramatic all at once!

America’s fascination with Cuba and South America roared ahead pre- and post-war, and America’s fascination with the vibrant Carmen Miranda also grew. The Brazilian beauty was an instant fashion-icon and with her captivating style she brought the turban…

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda (February 9, 1909 – August 5, 1955) was a Portuguese-born Brazilian fire cracker who catapulted to fame in America.  Miranda made 14 Hollywood films between 1940 and 1953.  In many of her photos and movies you can see her wearing turbans and of course her signature platform shoes. Her style is still replicated and admired to this day.  Despite being stereotyped, Miranda’s performances popularized Brazilian music and increased public awareness of Latin culture.  Carmen Miranda is considered the precursor to Brazil’s 1960’s Tropicalismo movement.

Various versions of the draped turban remained popular throughout the 1950’s. Fashion houses such as Dior and Claude Saint-Cyr introduced fabulous versions of the millinery masterpiece. The 1950’s turbans were often smaller and a little more compact than the previous era, and were often demonstrated as a hat.

How to Rock a Draped Turban in Today’s Fashion World

In order to wear a turban or head wrap, you must be self-assured — sanguine. And while its totally okay to use a hat or turban to hide some unruly hair, wearing a turban does anything BUT give you a low profile. After many high-profile stars and models such as Kate Moss, Mary Blige, and even Selma Hayek have been photographed wearing turbans, the fashion has since caught on in the streets.


In the past turbans were seen as linking grannies in caftans (speaking of which, be sure to read my Caftan article In Praise of the Caftan!) with a cocktail in hand. While, I personally embrace this image, the turban also has a new association for young women. Younger women are (finally) embracing the sophistication and glamor of old Hollywood from the 1920’s and 1930’s are are looking to women like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson who all  wore the turban and wore it so well damnit!

Turbans definitely personify a woman who is confident, worldly and wants to display exoticism. Again, if you want to hide, a turban is probably not for you, however, if you want to be a little different, not look like everyone else and turn into an instant Starlet, the turban may be just what you need!

I recommend you have some fun. Get together with one of your best gals or guys and have an old movie night.  If you are new to this whole turban thing but want to embrace your inner-chic, I suggest you watch a Carmen Miranda movie or The Postman Always Rings Twice, and take notes. As a next step, shop our Hats & Turbans collection for some great options, and also Ebay or Etsy for some pre-made turbans. It can be very basic to start with and the price point for a basic turban is minimal. The turban accentuates one’s face so be sure to put on a little lipstick, exaggerate your eye makeup and do it right! You can definitely be casual with the turban (I’ve seen gals totally rock the turban wearing some vintage jeans and a t-shirt), or go exotic — with some heavy statement jewelry, big earrings hoop earrings and a satin gown or caftan. You can buy vintage draped turbans that are millinery masterpieces or you can even learn to tie your own turban using modern or vintage scarves.  Personally, I like to find cool vintage scarves or even chiffon scarves and make more of a basic head wrap out of them, as was popular during the World War II era.  There are many tutorials online that you can google to teach you different knots, styles and looks of just taking a scarf and making your own masterpiece.  Your possibilities are endless!  Once you get it down you can add a brooch or even flowers to your creation.   But…. remember once you put on a turban you will be a STARLET!  And remember Madame Paulette said you can become “the self-effacing lady, the strong, dominant woman, the shy girl wishing she could be more confident, the peacock… ” 

by Cheryl aka Sassy Morris

Sassy packed up and left the gray gloomy skies of the Pacific Northwest along with her ungratifying, soul-sucking corporate job and moved to the sunshine and desert breezes in beautiful Southern California. Canadian Ex-Patriate, Wife, Mother, Fur-Baby Mother and Entrepreneur, Sassy now sells Vintage for a living after a life-long love and passion for rescuing old things. Sassy, sometimes serious, always honest and usually outrageous, she is embracing the “silver” years with a sense of humor, adventure, and seeking that path to enlightenment along the way. Visit her Etsy shop!