A short history of Western women in turbans.

A short article accompanying an interview with Catherine Baba in Dumbo Feather 27, 2011.


In a studio still from the 20s, Gloria Swanson gazes into the distance. Her eyes are framed by pencilled eyebrows, a peacock feather held against her cheek. Her fashionably bobbed hair is mostly obscured by that most glamorous and exotic accessory—the turban.

Jump forward thirty years, and here is Swanson again, burning up the screen as delusional siren Norma Desmond. In Sunset Boulevard’s early scenes, she prepares to bury her pet chimpanzee, swanning around in black silk pyjamas, leopard print framing her aging face. Even before she utters her famous line— “I am big; it’s the pictures that got small”—it’s clear that she is living in the past. Costume designer Edith Head scattered Norma’s wardrobe with 20s-inflected anachronisms, the turban chief among them, providing a visual shorthand for her 1950s audience. No contemporary woman, the turban says, would be caught dead in me.

The turban, in its small, snug, Catherine Baba-endorsed incarnation, speaks to a very particular point in time, but just how did this piece of headwear become so identified with the 20s and 30s? In fact, how did flappers and film stars come to wear it at all?

The first mention of turbans in the West comes in comes in the 14th century, when the Moors descended upon Spain. “Mohammedian” gentlemen wore them and over the centuries, they were adopted by colonialists and bohemians alike. Europe’s turban vocabulary expanded to include the Afghan lungee, the Indian pagri, and the Persian dastar as colonies expanded across the continent, but the enduring fashion among Westerners remained the Moorish style, which left the forehead bare (so it could touch the ground during prayer). This style became so prevalent that the English name for this style, the turban, is thought to derive from turband, tolibant, or tulipant – all derivative of the tulip, after the shape of the wound cloth.

Despite its popularity amongst colonialists, the turban didn’t take off in any mainstream way with Western women until the early days of the 20th century, when French designer Paul Poiret began to make his mark. Poiret was profoundly influenced by Orientalism of all stripes in general, and by Leon Bankst’s costumes for the Ballets Russes in particular. In 1913, he debuted the ‘Lampshade Silhouette’, a long, flared shift style topped off with a small variant of the turban or Russian fur hat. This silhouette, with its loose layers and tight-fitting hat, pre-empted the kimonos, furs and tunics of the early 20s, when Poiret’s flamboyant and avant-garde looks were finally embraced by a mainstream sick of the privations of war.

The turban, with its hint of Mata Hari exoticism, complemented this silhouette, and, like the cloche, showed off the liberated modern woman’s bobbed hairstyle. The fact of its relative exoticism meant that it was adopted by artists, society women, and bohemians, and developed the particular glamour that 20s and 30s soft-focus photography evokes. The tulip-shaped turban was a bona-fide fashion star.

The popularity of the turban was not to last. As war again overtook Europe and the United States, the close-fitting hat was abandoned. Fabric rationing meant that women re-worked their absent husbands’ shirts into more feminine styles  -- hence the broad shoulders of the ‘40s -- and made skirts out of as little material as possible. In the face of restrictive clothes and little make-up, women diverted their creativity skyward, creating elaborate pompadours, victory rolls, and updos. When turbans were worn, they were no longer tulip-shaped, but tied Rosie-the-Riveter or South Pacific style, to accommodate the tremendously sculpted hair of their wearers.

The day of the Western turban had come and gone, leaving only its early adopters—artists and wealthy eccentrics—as its staunch defenders. Although the ‘60s saw some elaborate turban-style hats, the snug turban was worn only by the Norma Desmonds and Edie Beales of the world, and for a long time took on the faded, slightly dissipated aura of the fashionable trinkets of times gone by.

Turban lovers can rejoice, though, that the Baba-style turban is finally on its way back. Though Prada tried five or six years ago to revive the look, it has, in the last few seasons, appeared on the catwalks of Vena Cava, Georgio Armani, and Jason Wu. It’s shown up on street style blogs, and on fashionable women around town. If fashion predictions hold true, this winter will see an ocean of snugly bound heads bobbing around the city, cigarette holders in hand, pet chimpanzees in tow.