views updated May 29 2018


The turban is essentially a headgear that uses fabric of varying width and length, which is twisted and turned around the head. The wrapped folds derived produce a "fitted effect" akin to a stitched or an engineered head covering. Though length, style, color, and fabric may vary as geographical locations change, the basic concept and construction of the turban remains unaltered. This is probably the widest and most flexible definition of this garment considering the many forms in which it exists.

Little is conclusively known of the origins of the turban. The earliest evidence of a turban-like garment is from Mesopotamia in a royal sculpture dating from 2350 b.c.e. Thus, it is known that the turban was in use before the advent of Islam and Christianity, therefore the origin of the turban cannot be ascribed to religious reasons alone. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament and Vedic literature from India. Sculpture from Central India (100 b.c.e.) provides detailed visual evidence of the use of turbans. These headdresses were originally worn by royalty and spiritual leaders and used to commute power, often being adorned with jewels and accessories to display wealth and grandeur.

In some form or another, the turban has been important in many cultures and religions. It is still in use in rural areas in Persia, the Middle East, Turkey, parts of Africa, and the Indian subcontinent where wrapped, as opposed to stitched headgear, continues to be preferred. Historically, draped clothing has always had a special significance in eastern culture. Watson notes that "certain strict Hindus still do not wear cut or stitched cloth as for them a garment composed of several pieces sewn together is an abomination and defilement" (p.11). Though turbans are worn primarily by men, literary evidence reveals that they were used by women on rare occasions in the past. "In Vedic literature Indrani, wife of Indra, wears a headdress known as usnisa" (Ghuyre, p. 68). Some of the earliest terms for the turban in English are turbant, tolibanl, and turband. These represent the French adaptation of the Turkish tulbend, a vulgarism for the term dulbend from Persia, didband, a scarf or sash wound around the neck.

In India this headdress is known by many different names locally. Potia, usnisa, pag, pagri, safa, and veshtani are some of the names used for the turban. The Sikhs, a community that dictates its followers to wear the turban, call it dastaar, while the Muslim religious leaders refer to it as the kalansuwa. In the earliest times, cotton was the fabric most commonly used as turban material. This is because it was affordable and abundant, apart from being the most comfortable fabric to use in tropical or temperate climates where it was most worn. Fabrics such as silk and satin saw limited usage among the more affluent and powerful class. Though there are innumerable variations in the turban, they can easily be divided into two broad types—long turbans and square turban pieces. The long piece is seven to ten meters long with the width varying from twenty-five to one hundred centimeters. The square pieces could vary in size between one to three meters per side, with one to one-and-a-half meters constituting the most useful size. There are an amazingly wide variety of turbans across different cultures and religions. Distinctions are made on the basis of size, shape, material, color, ornamentation, and method of wrapping. In the Muslim world, religious elders often wear a turban wrapped around a cap known in Arabic as a kalansuwa. The shape of these caps can be spherical or conical and this produces variations in the turban shape. In Iran, leaders wear black or white turbans wrapped in the flat, circular style. In the Indian state of Rajasthan the style of turban may vary even within the distance of a few miles. The Rajput turbans are remarkably different from the kind worn in any other region in India. There are specialists called pagribands whose skill is in the art of tying the turban and were employed by the erstwhile royalty for their services. Some famous styles from Rajasthan are the Jaipur pagri and the Gaj Shahi turban, the fabric of which is dyed in five distinctive colors and was developed by Maharaja Gaj Singh II from the Jodhpur royal family.

The turban as a headdress is not merely a fashion statement or cultural paraphernalia; it has symbolic meaning beyond the obvious. It serves to identify the wearer as a member of a particular group, tribe, or community, and serves as an introduction to their cultural, religious, political, and social orientations. Sikh men commonly wear a peaked turban, that serves partly as a covering for their hair, which is never cut out of respect for God's creation. The turban has significant associations with the concepts of respect and honor. A man's turban is supposed to signify his honor and the honor of his people. The exchange of turbans is considered a sign of everlasting friendship, while presenting someone with a turban is considered a great token of esteem. An exchange of turbans also signifies a long relationship and forges relationships between families. Thus, the turban is an intrinsic part of all ceremonies from birth until death.

Conversely, it is considered a grave insult to step over or pick up another man's turban. It is linked intrinsically to the "ego" of a person. To remove a turban and lay it at another's feet symbolizes submission and an expression of humbleness. The turban at a glance conveys the social and economic status of the wearer, the season, festival, community, and the region. It is also distinctive by the style of wrapping—each fold telling its own story. The tightness of the drape of the headgear, the lengths of the hanging end, the types of bands which are created on the surface, all say something about its wearer.

The colors of turbans vary in different cultures and are imbued with complex connotations, emotional context, and rich association. They are used to convey mood, religious values, customs, and ceremonial occasions. In India, ocher is the color of the saint, saffron denotes chivalry, and prosperity. White turbans, considered by some Muslims to be the holiest color, are used for mourning and by older men, whereas dark blue is reserved for a condolence visit. Among Sikhs of north India, blue and white cotton turbans are essentially religious in nature. In the Middle East, green turbans, thought to be the color of paradise, are worn by men who claim descent from the prophet Muhammad. Shape and size of the turban are determined by many conditions. Chief among these are the climate, status, and occupation of a person. Turbans are big and loose without hanging tails in the hot desert and thus serve a protective function. Merchants involved in more sedentary activities would wear ornamental turbans with long hanging tails.

The turban was introduced into fashionable European dress in the early fifteenth century and its usage continued until the sixteenth century. It has been revived many times in women's fashion at intervals since the sixteenth century. The turban has acquired a more contemporary form in the twenty-first century. Though it continues to exist in various parts of the world in its more traditional form, of late various fashion designers and couturiers have adapted the turban to give it a more fashionable and chic look, making it a popular fashion accessory. Even though in its more contemporary form the turban may not retain the same symbolism that is attached to its more traditional form, it nevertheless reinforces the importance of this garment.

See alsoHeaddress .


Bhandari, Vandana. Women's Costume in Rajasthan. Ph.D. diss., Delhi University, 1995.

——. "Mystical folds: The Turban in India." Fashion and Beyond (October 2001): 22–25.

Boucher, Francois. A History of Costume in the West. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1987.

Ghurye, Govind Sadashiv. Indian Costumes. Bombay: Popular Book Depot, 1951.

Mathur, U. B. Folkways in Rajasthan. Jaipur: The Folklorists, 1986.

Nagar, Mahender Singh. Rajasthan ki pag pagriyan. Jodhpur: Mehranarh Museum Trust, 1994.

Singh, C. et al. The Costumes of Royal India. New Delhi: Festival of India in Japan, 1988.

Watson, John Forbes. The Textile Manufacturers and the Costumes of the People of India. Varanasi, India: Indological Book House, 1982. Originally published in London in 1866.

Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopaedia of World Costume. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1988.

Vandana Bhandari


views updated Jun 11 2018


From ancient times until the present day, the most common headwear for Indian men has been a turban. A turban is a length of cloth wrapped in a specific way around the top of the head. Most commonly worn outdoors, turbans can also be worn indoors.

Woven of cotton, silk, or wool, turbans can be simple or very ornate. The type of fabric, patterns or colors on the fabric, length of fabric, and wrapping technique used for the turban indicate the wearer's social status, religion, ethnicity, and, in some cases, profession. Followers of the Sikh religion, a religion based on the belief of one God and many paths, for example, are required to wear a starched muslin, or cotton cloth, turban made from a cloth about five or six meters in length. (Sikh men never cut their hair out of respect for it as God's creation and wrap it in these turbans.) In some regions, Sikhs wear white turbans while in others dark blue turbans are worn. Turbans worn in different regions of the Rajasthan Desert include the leheriya, or wave, a patterned turban that is worn especially during the monsoon season; the panchrang, or five-color, turban worn for celebrations; and the more simply designed bundi, or small dot patterned, and mothro, or small square patterned, turbans worn for serious, somber occasions.

Turbans can be decorated in a variety of ways. Often the fabric is dyed one color and bordered with a contrasting color. For more intricate designs, everyday turbans are block-printed or tie-dyed. Festive turbans or those worn by wealthier men are made of more expensive fabrics, such as silk, and even woven or stamped with gold thread.

In most parts of India turbans are worn wrapped directly around the bare head of the wearer. However, in modern-day Pakistan and especially the areas near Iran, Afghanistan, and central Asia, turbans are wrapped over the top of a soft cap called a topi or a rigid cap covered with embroidery called a kulah.

There are many different styles of wrapping turbans. Two common ways include one continuous swirl around the head to form the turban or twisting the fabric into two parts and securing one end as a band around the forehead and then arranging the two segments into a diagonal tie on top of the head. Some wearers leave one end of the turban fabric hanging for decoration or for use as a head towel.

Turbans continue to be worn by men throughout India and by many Sikhs and Muslims throughout the world. The style is also worn by women in some cultures, such as the nomadic group known as Kurds living in parts of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. A prewrapped version of the turban became a popular hat with European and American women in the 1960s. Some older women continue to wear it in their homes as a casual covering for hair rolled in curlers.


Askari, Nasreen, and Liz Arthur. Uncut Cloth: Saris, Shawls, and Sashes. London, England: Merrell Holbertson, 1999.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Aturbanor hat made of elaborately wrapped, finely woven fabricadorned the heads of women as early as the Sumerian civilization, which began in 3000 b.c.e. The Sumerians lived in the fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Iraq. Skilled weavers used their own hands and machines called looms to make the delicate, lightweight fabrics that turbans required. Sumerian sculptures, statues, and royal tomb remains depict women wearing turbans so elaborate that they must have required help in wrapping them. Sumerian turbans draped around women's heads in many different complex decorative ways. Turbans represented one of the many intricate styles for dressing hair that Sumerians practiced.

Though little is known about the earliest turbans worn in Mesopotamia, the area in which the Sumerians lived, we do know that the turban became an important form of headwear for men in the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa for much of recorded history. They were common from the earliest years of civilization in India before the third century c.e., and they became popular among Turks after the decline of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 c.e. They are now worn by members of the Sikh religion, as well as by some Muslims and Hindus, in order to show their religious faith.


Payne, Blanche. History of Costume: From the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper and Row, 1965.

[See also Volume 1, India: Turbans ; Volume 2, Byzantine Empire: Turbans ]


views updated Jun 27 2018


A headdress with ancient roots, the turban is made from a long strip of cloth, most often cotton or silk, which is wrapped around the head, usually in a specific pattern. The turban frequently covers the whole head, concealing the hair from view, and sometimes the cloth is wrapped around a turban cap rather than directly around the head. Some experts believe that the turban originated in Persia, modern-day Iran, while others think that it was invented by the Egyptians. However, the use of the turban first became widespread during the years of the Byzantine Empire (4761453 c.e.), and since that time turbans have been strongly identified with Eastern cultures and religions.

The Byzantine Empire was characterized by a blend of Eastern and Western cultures, and one symbol of this blending was the adoption of the Persian turban by Emperor Constantine (c. 285337 c.e.). The turban was worn by both Byzantine men and women, and in 1453, when the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, the Turks, too, began to wear the turban. Though turbans often have great religious or political meaning in the cultures in which they are worn, during various periods certain Westernized turbans have become popular as women's fashion accessories.


Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble, 1977.

Tulips, Arabesques, and Turbans: Decorative Arts from the Ottoman Empire. New York: Abbeville Press, 1982.


views updated May 17 2018

tur·ban / ˈtərbən/ • n. 1. a man's headdress, consisting of a long length of cotton or silk wound around a cap or the head, worn esp. by Muslims and Sikhs. 2. (also turban shell) a marine mollusk (Turbo and other genera, family Turbinidae) with a sculptured spiral shell and a distinctive operculum which is smooth on the inside and sculptured and typically patterned on the outside.DERIVATIVES: tur·baned adj.ORIGIN: mid 16th cent.: via French from Turkish tülbent, from Persian dulband.


views updated May 18 2018

Turban (Pañjābī, ‘pagg’, ‘pagṛī’). Headdress of male keśadhārī Sikhs from boyhood. Although not one of the Five Ks, the turban distinguishes male khālsā Sikhs as the keś (uncut hair) must be covered in this way.


views updated Jun 11 2018

turban Eastern headdress of Muslim origin. XVI. Three main types are repr. by tolibant, tulipan, turban(t) — F. †tolliban, †tulban, †turbant (mod. turban), It. †tolipano, -ante, Sp., Pg., It. turbante — Turk. tülbend — Pers. dulband.