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Love a Fez: Part I

The history of the fez in turkey

Kamal Ataturk, the beneficent[1] dictator of Turkey in the 1920s, had himself a problem. The country of the Turks is placed smack between Europe and the near East, and is plagued by the ideological bifurcation such a location might suggest. Ataturk himself managed to create the Republic of Turkey in 1923 from the waning vestiges of the Ottoman empire, and he wanted this newfound country to follow in Europe's footsteps. He tossed the local Islamic leadership out on its collective ear in 1924, introduced the Western calendar and twenty-four hour clock in 1925 while simultaneously banning polygamy. The Latin alphabet showed up in 1928, Constantinople became Istanbul in 1930, and women were given suffrage in 1934. After a prodigious baby boom, last names were thrust upon the populace in 1935 (until then, you had a bunch of Ahmet-son-of-Mohammeds running about). But these are all trivial changes compared to the calamitous decree on August 30, 1925: Ataturk banned the fez as a piece of headgear.

Turban-ulent Times

The fez had been introduced in 1826 by Mahmud II to replace the turban. Mahmud, then head of the Ottoman Empire that was to be divvied up among various European nations and partially grow into Turkey, was raised by a Creole mother. He had the same sort of longing for Europe as Ataturk did, he'd already flirted with the Colonial-style three-cornered hat. His advisors duly noted that the three-cornered hat was supposed to reflect the Holy Trinity, at which point Mahmud wisely, if regretfully, dismissed the possibility of the hat gracing the closets and heads of his Islamic countrymen.

Soon afterward, though, a shipment arrived from Tunis of venerable fezzes. As Jeremy Seal, author of A Fez of the Heart: Travels round Turkey in Search of a Hat, remarks, "...if these fezzes were not perhaps as Western as he had hoped, they at least would provide him with a clean break from the burdensome turban." It wouldn't do not to wear a hat, yet, when it came time to pray, the hat could not be knocked off when the worshiper bent his head to the ground. Hence, brimlesshats were eminently practical from the standpoint of prayer, if useless in keeping the sun out of one's eyes. In a land beset with tradition, the transition from turban to fez did not go easy. In the mid-1830s, traveler Thomas Allom noted "the inhabitants still refuse to regulate their costume by direction of the Sultan; they refuse to doff the cherished turban... for the recently introduced fez." Western journalists unleashed a litany of disparaging comments. A Reverend Walsh intoned

A miserable substitute for the splendid turban.

Sir Adolphus Slade, similarly lauded the lost headwrap:

The magical effects of a turban are well known. It gives depth to light eyes, expression to dark eyes; it softens harsh features, relieves delicate ones.

And Julia Pardo, writing in 1834, was downright impolite:

I cannot forbear to record my regret as I beheld in every direction the hideous and unmeaning fez. The costly turban, that bound the brow like a diadem, and relieved by the richness of its tints the dark hue of the other garments, has now almost entirely disappeared from the streets.


They got used to it. In 1903, the Turkish writer Halil Halid remarked, "I was seized with the ambition of appearing up to date, and of dressing in the more modern manner; that is to say, European costume in all but the fez." In 1913, the Ottomans, wary of the impending World War, collected lira on the streets of the cities with which to buy two battleships from the British. However, Churchill, leery of Ottoman coziness with Austria and Germany, reneged. Germany, quick to capitalize on this supercilious stiffing, sent two warships of her own, and as they pulled into port at the slighted country, the Ottomans looked through their spyglasses and noticed complete German crews decked out in fezzes. They cheered. The Germans cheered. It was an utterly charming scene. The Ottomans joined the war on the German side soon afterward, thanks to a gentle stroking of the public's nationalistic fervor. In a short century, the fez had gone from being a nuisance to a badge of national identity. In 1919-1922 Smyrna was occupied by the Greeks, and fezwearers unwilling to go bareheaded got in trouble:

[Turks], both men and women, have been mishandled, insulted, or threatened in the streets of the town, the fezzes of the former and the veils of the latter being torn off their heads and trodden on.

Similarly, a British traveler named Marmaduke Pickthall started carrying a clandestine fez after being stoned by some Ottomans: "My only crime," he wrote, "had been to wear an ugly English hat."

Ministry of Foreign A Fez

Just about the time fezzes were really coming into their own, a young, befezzed Ataturk serving his country as an overseas delegate was insulted by a French officer: "Why do you wear that ridiculous thing?" The West had seemed teasingly close to Ataturk, who studied French under Dominican monks and "spent much time in reading revolutionary literature by French authors." As he grew to assemble the Turkish nation, he was unwilling to let a hat stand in his way. He outlawed the fez, and soon after, he wrestled a ruling from an Islamic judge that okayed Western garb:

If a Muslim buys a cow from a Christian, and the cow refuses to give milk unless the Muslim milks her while wearing a Christian hat, then the Muslim may wear such a hat.

Thus, the religious powers-that-be mercifully approved Turkey's Westernization with crystal clarity. To gather support for this Westernization, Ataturk did the unthinkable: he picked the most backward Turkish town imaginable, Kastamonu, and there performed the equivalent of a runway fashion show. For all the above mentioned anecdotes, he had some reason for concern. His biographer noted how quiet he was on the journey to this backwater. As Seal remarks, "Donning a Western hat in Kastamonu wasn't just inappropriate. It was like wearing furs to the zoo or pink to a funeral; it was inexcusable and outrageous."

Be that as it may, Ataturk pulled no punches. Upon witnessing a man toting the traditional badge of honor after having gone on a pilgrimage to the Mecca, he said

I see a man in front of me wearing a fez on his head and a green turban wrapped round the fez... would a civilized man put on this preposterous garb and go out to hold himself up to universal ridicule?

The people of Kastamonu, and, indeed, the rest of Turkey were flabbergasted. Ataturk walked every parade route in town, some of them twice, in tweed suits and bowlers. Fezzes were now illegal, and a whole country had to scramble to find itself something to wear atop its head. Western hats were exported to Turkey in untold numbers. Seal details:

They came by ship and by train, bowlers and homburgs, panamas and flatcaps, but they did not come in sufficient numbers to meet the demand. In Ankara, the hat stores were continually sold out. In Constantinople, even the countless new shops that sprang overnight could not keep pace. Such was the shortage that the prefect of the city... set restrictions on the profit that could be made legally on hats.

Imagine That With a Hat

These new hats arrived with no instructions. Without experience, yet determined to have the proper angle just so, Turks devoured "How to Wear Such-and-such a Hat" articles either on streetcorners, or, if illiterate, harangued the educated into reading them aloud. Always quick to make a buck, the Europeans sent them, well, old hats: ridiculous things from a few seasons ago that had been mildewing in warehouses. Given that they were made in the early 1920s, one can only imagine. A London Times correspondent in Constantinople reported hats made of

Materials more appropriate for a Christmas cracker or a seaside comedian.... Duty before Dignity, as the bosun said; Progress before Dignity, says Turkey.

In 1928, journalist Harry A. Franck wrote

To one coming from still colorful Syria and the lands south of it, the arrival in a defezzed Turkey was almost painful... the crowd was as drab as a bunch of Italian subway muckers... the average gathering of Turkish men suggests a tramp convention.

Seal himself notes that

These travelers did not seem to regard the prohibition of turbans and fezzes as a moral issue and made no suggestion that personal preference rather than the law should dictate one's dress. Rather, the tone of their observations was aesthetic outrage, as if the Turks served merely to bring color and decoration to the landscapes through which these travelers passed. It was hard to imagine that the Turks shared their view.

And so early Turkey struggled with personal identity. As innumerable, shoddy European hats came ashore and men were arrested for not wearing them it became apparent that this affront to Turkish dignity at the hands of the country's greatest savior could to last. Next time: martial law declared on contraband fez-wearers, and a city named Fez that no longer has any.


  1. A contentious adjective if you're not Turkish. Ataturk also, like most nation-builders, committed some horrible genocidde in his time.


  1. Jeremy Seal. A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.
  2. Donald Everett Webster. The Turkey of Ataturk. George Banta Publishing Company, 1939.

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