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The Turban: From Power Dressing To Making A Trendy Fashion Statement

Believe it or not, the turban appeared as a headpiece or a head wrap a long time ago in ancient Greece, when the Cretan kings wore it as a sign of power and respect, and was referred to in Latin as "turbinea." However, by the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the turban had become a significant headpiece that complements formal attire worn by rulers and men of political and religious powers at imperial courts in the east such as in Turkey, Persia and India.

The Great Mughals of India, for instance, referred to the turban headpiece as ‘taj-i izzati’ (meaning the crown of honor), and styled it using multicolored striped cloth made of silk or velvet, and decorated it with large red spinel or ruby surrounded by pearls and topped with a feather. But this particular men’s only fashionable headpiece was explored by rebellious women at imperial courts in the east too. The Mongol’s Sultana Raziyya was the first woman in history to wear the turban inside the male-dominated imperial court. In fact, Sultana Raziyya, who was passionate about arts, raised eyebrows when she entered the imperial court dressed like a man to quell objections to female rule.

However, this headpiece was not so familiar in the west until the French General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. He was inspired by the Egyptian military rulers’ bright color fashion from turbans to cloaks, tunics and sleeves, referring to it in French as à la mameluck. Yet across the west, the turban was seen as an indicator of the social conditions of women, either as factory workers in Europe or as slaves (worn by the Afro-Americans) in the late 19th century America.

The Turban made a comeback in the early 1900’s as part of a fashionable women’s bathing costume, paired with a matching knee-length cotton swimsuit. But thanks to Paul Poiret, a leading French fashion designer who was known as the Sultan de la mode (meaning the Sultan of fashion), the turban was fashionably adorned again by European women in particular, competing with the wear of traditional wide-brim or pillbox veiled hats. Paul Poiret’s eastern-influenced, aesthetic style turbans were eventually adopted by western socialites such as Peggy Guggenheim, and western silent film stars like Gloria Swanson.

By the 1940s, wearing a turban became essential in Europe that it could be worn day and night, at work to complement the formal attire and to showcase the wearer as worldly and educated, or at a dazzling social gala to complement the evening dress, featuring dazzling bows made of velvet or rayon on the top. Later on, it was internationally introduced as a statement headpiece by the glamorous starlets of Hollywood such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Hedy Lamarr, who succumbed to its charm when played a leading role as a beauty from French Indochina in the 1939 film Lady of the Tropics, while Lana Turner created the image of the femme fatale wearing a turban in the 1946 film The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Since then, this fashionable headpiece was on and off the fashion scene. It was merely seen as an everyday head wear, and became exclusive to the fashion runway, to photo sessions organized by fashion magazines, and to Hollywood leading ladies in the 1960s and 1970s disco days such as Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Marisa Berenson, Romy Schneider and Ali McGraw. Fashion haute couture like Chanel, Christian Dior and Givenchy have all embraced this headpiece into their elegant designs and it eventually became a favorite to royalty like Queen Elizabeth II, Impress Farah Pahlavi, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.

Even though turbans have never really vanished from the fashion scene, it has been lying low in recent years. The last time models were photographed wearing turbans was in Marc Jacobs’ Spring 2018 show at New York Fashion Week. The question is: Are turbans fashionable today? Of course! Wrapping a colorful vintage scarf made of cotton or silk into a turban can compliment solid already-formed styles. It adds a touch of exotic drama to anything from jeans and white tee shirt, to a sweeping evening dress.

So, with all the rainbow colors, fabrics and designs available in stores, 21st century women need to understand that wearing turbans only demands confidence.