The Lifesaving Powers of Vintage Turbans

the artyologist image of vintage turbans

I have recently discovered the magic of vintage turbans. Of course I have always been aware of them, but I never wore turbans up until about a year ago, and when I started wearing them, they were actually more like headscarf headbands. The first time I wore a turban, I was absolutely sure that it was outrageous and that everyone was staring at my head. Actually, they probably were staring at my head, but that’s OK because vintage turbans are fabulous!

So what exactly is a turban, and where did they come from?

A turban is a “head covering consisting of a long piece of fabric wrapped around the head”. (According to Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion) This kind of head covering originated in ancient times, in the Middle East. In fact the word “tulip” is actually derived from the Persian word “Dulband”, because it resembles the complicated wrapping of the headpiece. The earliest known record of the turban’s existence is 2600 BC in Mesopotamia. Originally they were worn for practical purposes, but they soon became a religious head covering in the ancient Moorish/Sarracenic cultures and are still worn today in many religions. Thus, Middle Eastern cultures view the turban not as a fashion statement, but as a religious symbol. When wearing a turban, for this reason, one must be culturally respectful by wearing it in such a way that it won’t disparage someone’s religious beliefs . (I would liken this to the scandal that surfaced a few years ago when certain fashion houses dressed their models in Native American Plains Indian headdresses of feathers, when headdresses are a strictly religious head covering in Native American culture, so it is extremely insensitive to use it as a fashion piece. Does this mean that we can’t wear feathers? Does this mean that if we are not Native American, we can’t wear any Native American fashions? No, but it does mean that we need to be respectful, and wear it in a way that doesn’t belittle someone else’s culture.)

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So back to the turban. The turban was introduced to Europe in the 15th century because of trade with the Turkish-Ottoman empire, and this led to the rise of the Renaissance and the fad for “Eastern” inspired fashions. The turban didn’t rise in popularity however until the 18th century, where it was worn mainly by the ladies of the aristocracy. This was an era largely influenced by the East and the style carried over into the next century: the Romantic Period of the 1814-1840.

As that era ended, and the Victorian era began, the turban all but disappeared and would not be seen for almost another hundred years, when it again rose in popularity in the 1920’s. In the 1920’s, Western culture again looked to the “Exotic East” for inspiration. Events such as the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, led to the rise of fascination with the far reaching nations of Egypt, India, China, Russia and many other Eastern cultures. The turban was again a popular accessory with an exotic origin, and it became extremely popular with the “Bright Young Things” of the era. By this time, turbans varied, and the shape was not necessarily even a full wrap, as there are many pictures of women wearing them as an open topped headwrap. They were often worn low on the head, sometimes almost obscuring the eyes in the same style of the cloche hat.

1920's turban

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Image of Doris Kenyon, source

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Image of Dorothy Sebastian, source

By the 1930’s, turbans were here to stay, and became very popular for everyday wear, sports wear, as well as evening wear, depending on the fabric used. The 1930’s style headwear was up and away from the face, thus turbans were also worn back from the face.  Sometimes they were pre-shaped and sewn rather than tied into place.

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Greta Garbo, via

The 1940’s is one of the most recognizable era’s of the popularity of the turban. It is in this era where turbans were one of the most famous and widely worn items. Because of WWII, the effect that rationing was having on fabric supply, and the fact that many fashion houses had shut down, hats were scarce. Creative ways of wrapping headscarves ensured that a lady always had a headcovering to match her outfit. Many of the publications of this era show different ways of wrapping, to create different looks. It is in this era that headwraps reached outrageous proportions, and often flowers, bows, fruit. . . all kinds of embellishments were added. If you think that your headwrap is large and outrageous today, it’s probably got nothing on the wraps worn by women at this time! Even though going hatless was more common in this time period, for most women, that simply wasn’t an option, as no respectable lady would leave the house without hat, gloves and heels. Just because there was a war on, didn’t mean an end to civility!

loretta youngImage of Loretta Young, via
IMG_9414rev1941 Vogue turbans, via

the artyologist image of vogue magazine february 15 1941

Simple headscarves were also common for women at this time, as they kept women’s hair contained for the war work they were performing, like in the famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster.

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The 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s saw the popularity of the turbans continue, although the silhouette changed a bit. The 1950’s turbans were often smaller and “tidier” than the previous era, and were often preformed, like a hat. The turbans of the 1960’s were rounder, in keeping with the popular round pillbox shape of the era. The turbans of the 1970’s were headwraps rather than full tied turbans, and were often tied front to back, being bohemian in style, as were many of the fashions of the time.

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1970's yves st laurent

1970s wrap

In modern history, from the 1920’s to the 1970’s the turban was a popular choice for everyday wear, only falling out of fashion in the 1980’s alongside hats for everyday wear. Now, 30 years later, Western culture is very much a “hatless” culture. I think that many people are afraid to wear hats and headwear, simply because we aren’t used to wearing them anymore, or seeing ourselves in them, thus we have nothing to compare ourselves to. Many people say that “hats don’t suit my face”, but I think this is incorrect. There are different styles of hats and headwear that suit everyone’s face. I think the reason people think that hats and headwraps don’t suit them, is simply because they aren’t currently “in style”, and they’ve never tried wearing them. And I get it- until I became interested in vintage fashion, the thought of wearing a turban in public, was a scary thought! 🙂

the artyologist image of vintage headwrap

So coming from a vintage turban tying newbie (all the history aside) there are so many great reasons why you might try a vintage style turban.

  1. It’s fun. I mean, how can you wear a bow on your head and not be happy? It’s a GIANT BOW!
  2. Vintage turbans instantly add vintage style to an otherwise era ambiguous ensemble.
  3. You can tie turbans in all manner of styles to create a look from practically any era, including historical costuming, such as the 18th century.
  4. They are a great alternative to hats. If you, like me, don’t have a large collection of hats; scarves and wraps are a great headpiece to finish off an outfit.
  5. You can use either a scarf, or a piece of material. Yarn dyed, rather than stamped fabric is best, so that the pattern goes through the material. That way the “wrong” side of the fabric won’t show when you wrap it.
  6. You can add brooches, flowers, bows, fruit. . . whatever you want, to coordinate with any outfit. And no matter what you add to your turban, it probably won’t be as crazily fun as the turbans they wore in the 1940’s!
  7. They cover up bad hair. (Like when you accidentally dye your hair green. Not that we have experience with that . . .)
  8. On days when you are too lazy to style your hair; cover it up. All you have to worry about is (maybe) your bangs if you have them.
  9. Recognize that every time you tie one, it will be unique and different. When you tie one on the day you aren’t going out, it will look perfect, and the day you are going somewhere special you will fight with it every step of the way. Do not fear bobby pins- use them as the lifeline they are to secure your wrap!
  10. It takes a bit of bravery to wear a headwrap if you have never done so before, but as someone who was always a bit too scared to try it, I can testify that it’s a lot of fun! And especially as I am growing out my pixie haircut now, I feel like turbans are going to be a common sight in the days to come. As I said, “the lifesaving powers of vintage turbans”. 😉

the artyologist vintage turbans

Well, that was my short history on the turban. Of course this is from a European point of view, as that is the extent of the knowledge I have on the subject. And, of course there is so much that I haven’t even covered at all! If you want to learn more about turbans, or the history of other hats and headdress, the two books I have read on the subject are, “The Mode in Hats and Headdress” by R. Turner Wilcox, which is a fabulous book about headdress from ancient times up to the 1950’s, and the other is “Hats and Headwear around the World” by Beverly Chico, which I have only read small sections of. Another person who is super in the know about turbans, and has inspired me is Emileigh of Flashback Summer.

So, do you think you’ll try a headwrap? And, did you learn anything new about turbans you didn’t know before?

the artyologist image of vintage turbans style