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 Sidney, Australia, but by 1814 they were out
of fashion (see The
Jane Austen Center 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 of 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
The turbans pictured above range from the year 1783 through
1831. 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. In 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 powered
wigs where often worn, and the small
cap at the pinnacle of the large
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
oriental is most like the classic turban; one can see many examples
of this style above. The
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
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.
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 asymetrical and flattened ––see
the last two turbans in the second row of pictures above. Ostrich plumes and bird
of paridises tails where 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
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 by C. Willett Cunnington, 1937 [Dover reprint]. This book breaks
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
Ackermann's Costume Plates: Women’s Fashion in England,
1818-1828 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
of Ackermann’s on-line on the Costume.com site
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.
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
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.
New York Public Library Digital Gallery has a fantastic
advanced search in which you can select the time period and a keyword.
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
Plate Collection, 19th Century". This Fashion Plate
Collection is primarily comprised of approximately 650 images of
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.
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
and Albert Museum site
collections page also has a good
advance search in which you can select the time period and a key
The Costumer's Manifesto costume.org Fashion Plates 1775-1789, 1790-1800, 1789-1800, 1824-1830 and
much more you coud spend a day.
The Turban at the top of the page are all images from Wikimedia Commons.org
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.