When I set out to learn more about European women’s turbans, I assumed this would be a fairly narrow subject. I had a few preconceptions shared by many costumers: namely, that turbans were limited to Regency period evening wear; that they looked much like the classic African, Middle Eastern and Asian wrapped headdresses on which the European fashion turban was based; and that a turban was always a turban. The reality turned out to be more complex.
Let’s take my preconceptions one by one. First, the limited time frame. I had read on more than one web site that turbans became popular in France after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1802; by 1804 they were all the rage both across the Channel in England and in far-flung places like America and Sydney, Australia, but by 1814 they were out of fashion (see The Jane Austen Centre and the article it credits “Austen and Authenticity”, paragraph nine).There was indeed a spike in the turban’s popularity, but statements such as this sound as if turbans were not worn before or after these few years, which is not so. After looking at hundreds of portraits and fashion plates from 1770 through 1850, I can vouch for many turbans and turban-like headdresses from the 1770s through the 1830s.
My next preconception was that turbans were worn only for evening dress. This seems not to be true for the 18th century but is generally true after 1800. Most fashion plates do show turbans being worn with evening dress, but I have seen examples of them being worn with afternoon dress. [The Regency Fashion Page describes afternoon dress as “what a person of the highest social class wears in the afternoon at appropriately upper-class social functions like society teas, garden parties, afternoon weddings, etc."]
My last preconception was that a turban always looks like a turban. Turbans were inspired by the oriental influence in European décor and fabrics that started in the late 1700s and increased into the Regency period and beyond. These turbans did not always look like the classical turban, but took many shapes and forms that blended the classic turban with the fashionable head covering of the day and responded to changing hairstyles. This is most clear in the 1780s and 1820s, the beginning and the end of the time period covered in this article.
Perhaps I am too inclusive in what I call a turban, but if one twists and wraps fabric around the head then I think it should be included in the turban group. On face value, you would think a turban is a turban, but looking through fashion plates I have seen headdresses that I would have called a turban not be called a turban and vice versa. Here are a few of the general terms applied to turban-like headdresses: “turban-like”, “turban-fronts”, “toque-turbans”, “turban caps” and “crownless turbans.” The vagueness of these terms implies a broad use of the word “turban” in describing women's European headdresses.
The turbans pictured below range from the year 1784 through 1833. You can click on them for the full fashion drawing or portrait and its year. At the end of this article there is a list of sources for many more illustrations. I group these 6o+ years into four time periods that show distinct changes in the forms of the turbans worn: 1775-1795, 1795-1800, 1800-1815 and 1815-1840.
1775-1795. The Mode in Hats and Headdresses Ruth Turner Wilcox describes "… turbans and toques of muslin, gauze or tulle made over wire frame and trimmed with ribbons, feathers and jeweled ornaments. Turbans were also fashioned of silk scarves with fringed ends, of crepe, silk and ribbon, a style which carried over into the next century." Hairstyles at this time were large and powdered wigs were often worn, and the small cap at the pinnacle of thelarge hairstyle was in vogue. The turban was a modification of this small cap . It was usually made with the same sheer materials as the cap, often decorated with three to five ostrich plumes and pearls, then perched on top of the large hairstyles.
1795-1800. Hairstyles are more natural, in color and no longer powdered, with long curls or ringlets. Turbans of this time period are of the wrapped style. This period caricature of a woman wrapping her turban does show how a turban would have been wrapped. It is a caricature, but the exaggeration is a comment on the amount of fabric needed to make a turban, not on the act of wrapping one. Turbans were wrapped so that many of the curls or strands of hair spilled out below and between the wraps. Sometime the top of the crown was covered, sometimes not. Long ostrich plumes, usually white or pastel but sometimes brightly colored, were often worn sticking straight up like a quail’s topknot. Interesting items such as sprays of wheat stalks were also used for decoration.
1800-1815. Some costume historians divide turbans in this period into three subgroups based on form: the Oriental, the pillbox and the saque. I think this is a useful tool because turbans in this era are structurally so different. The oriental from 1804 below is most like the classic turban; one can see many examples of this style on this page. These pillboxes (another) seen in extant museum examples are only vaguely like turbans, but from a milliner’s point of view, I see them as the basis of the fixed turbans in the next time period. The saque (another) was based on the hat worn by the French Revolutionaries that was in turn based on the Phrygian cap worn by ancient Greeks. These three forms existed concurrently. What seemed to change from year to year was the fashion for decoration on the turbans: first ostrich plumes, then cocque sweeps, then aigrettes. Other decorations seen on turbans from this time period were fringe, pearls, pins and tassels, plain or pearl.
1816-1840 Hairstyles, hats and dresses become taller, wider, more angular and more elaborate during this time. The expansion took place gradually, but by the late 1820s it reached an extreme, and so did the turbans. As an example here is a hat and turban side by side. The turbans where also often asymmetrical and flattened ––see the last two turbans below. Ostrich plumes and birds of paradise tails were popular choices for both hats and turbans. Structurally, a key point is that the turbans of this time period are fixed turbans. Turbans are shown alone in the fashion plates, not on a head, so you can see the structure. Looking closely at half a dozen of the turbans from this period, it is clear that they could not be wrapped turbans.
1840-1845. According to C. Willett Cunnington in English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century, turbans were still being worn with evening wear, but they were fading out of fashion, to reappear at the beginning of the 20th century with the Regency revival, when they were worn for day and evening.
The Mode in Hats and Headresses by Ruth Turner Willcox, pub. 1948. I have always loved this book for its excellent drawings and breath of coverage, but now that I have seen so many of her drawings next to the fashion plates or portraits that she took them from, I have a new admiration for the research she must have done. There is something about seeing the line drawing next to the fashion plate that crystallizes the main points of the article of headdress and helps one interpret the points more rapidly. Dover is coming out with a reprint; it's about time, although it does reduce the value of my signed copy a little.
English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century: A Comprehensive Guide with 1,117 Illustrations by C. Willett Cunnington, 1937 [Dover reprint]. This book breaks the fashions of the 19th century down year by year. The author gathered his information from many period sources including extant garments, fashion plates and written information like books of toilet, newspapers and memoirs. I reviewed his listings year by year and turbans were listed for 34 of the years between 1800 and 1845. There is an entry for every year, so my guess is that a few turbans were worn but they were not popular enough to be mentioned in every year’s entry. Some of the years have notations like “going out” for 1808 and “a few turbans” for 1809. Before they totally go out of style in 1846, 1844 says “a few turbans”.
Ackermann's Costume Plates by Rudolph Ackermann, Dover reprint 1978.
In this reprint of 88 plates from the larger Ackermann’s collection that started in 1809 there are nine turbans being worn with evening dress. There are also three or four turban-like headdresses that are called toques.
Some of Ackermann’s on-line on the Costume.com site
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Ackermann’s Costume Plates 1825 Tartarian Turban on another site
Eighteenth-century French Fashion in Full Color 64 Engravings from the "Galerie des Modes", 1778-1787 Ed. Stella Blum, Dover reprint 1982. Of the 64 plates in this collection there are three very turban-like headdresses with captions like "coeffure Orientale", "coeffure á la Créole" and plate # 14 that has no reference to the headdress in the caption. The original Galerie collection had 400 plates of which the first 36 plates where devoted to headdresses alone I would love to see those if they still exist.
Paintings of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun Painted between 1770-1835, nearly one third of these 550 paintings have a woman wearing a turban as their subject. These paintings have some of the most beautiful turbans I have ever seen, with a level of reality surpassing any fashion plate. Regarding the fashions worn by the subjects of the portraits, some of the clothing seems like public clothing and some seems more intimate. On public fashions, the V&A website notes that some portraits of the period were about ten years ahead of the general fashions of the time.
The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has a good advanced search; when you add the keyword “turban” you will find many examples of Oriental and European turbans.
The New York Public Library Digital Gallery has a fantastic advanced search in which you can select the time period and a keyword.
University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections is also searchable for time period and keywords. One interesting turban from this collection shows both the front and back and demonstrates just how flattened they had become by this period. Turban 1834 front and back
"Fashion Plate Collection, 19th Century". This Fashion Plate Collection is primarily comprised of approximately 650 images of nineteenth-century fashion plates in the Macpherson Collection of the Ella Strong Denison Library at Scripps College (Claremont, California) I love the way they have added high-res scans of the fashion plates that let you enlarge just what you want and the small frame doesn't get in the way.
Cathy Decker’s Regency Fashion page. This site has not been updated in a while but it does have some great information and images to list a few.
1824 ball dress
La Miroir de la Mode, 1803. Full evening dress with turban
Her new site is the Regency Fashion Page
Victoria and Albert Museum site collections page also has a good advance search in which you can select the time period and a key word.
I would like to thank my editor Danine Cozzens. I'm going to owe her a very nice Regency hat or turban after this, maybe a recreation of that extant turban at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.