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Turbanism Makes Slow Headway

Original post made by John Barry, Danville, on Oct 5, 2011


The Turbanism movement, about which I wrote back in April, has not exactly taken the art world by storm. As an iconic image, however, this exotic headwear has. Throughout the years, the turban has caught the eye of many a visual artist, particularly Medieval/Renaissance Flemish painters. Jan van Eyck (dates unknown) painted "Portrait of a Man in Turban," ca. 1433 (possibly a self-portrait).

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The most famous Low Countries turban painting is Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (1665-1667).

To a large population of Renaissance Europe, the turban was the ideal iconic symbol of Islamic faith and civilization. Turbans appeared in the paintings of Italian and Flemish artists when they depicted scenes of the Ottoman Empire and Biblical lore. At least one of the wise men is always depicted with a turban.

Turban iconography was prominent in Renaissance England. Although friendly relations formed between England and the Islamic civilization of the Middle East in the early 16th century, Turkish fashions became popular for the higher classes. During times of interaction with Istanbul, Queen Elizabeth I of England wore Turkish clothing styles. It was believed that she favored working with the Islamic sultans of Istanbul rather than the Roman Catholic leaders of Europe. Later, Poet Alexander Pope is sometimes depicted wearing a turban.

Romantic painters no doubt saw the turban as exotic, in keeping with some of their "Orientalist" predilections. Eugene Delacroix rendered at least two turban-themed portraits: "Portrait of a Turk in a Turban" (1826) and "Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Turban" the following year. The hunters in "Lion Hunt" (1861, late in the artist's career, when Romantic figuratism had given way to proto-Impressionistic abstraction) are all arrayed in turbans, and the painting is described by discoverfrance.net as "a Rubenesque picture filled with men, horses, and wild animals; such details as turbans and wild, non-European expressions are fused by the unreal color into an imaginative vision."

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As women's fashion, the turban was popular in Europe and America c. 1776-1800. But "the turban has never really vanished, but it has been lying low. Recently, though, this dormant trend has quietly, but assertively, surfaced at fashion shows and on city streets," as the New York Times put it in November 2010.

However: "Wearing a turban demands confidence. You have to believe, truly believe, in your look. You have to commit--it's a turban, after all. If you use hats to hide uncooperative hair or to keep a low profile, the turban is not a smart choice."


A Brief History of the Turban

The first mention of turbans dates back to the end of the fourteenth century, at the end of the Moorish occupation in Spain. According to German historian Leo Frobenius, turbans first appeared in Sudan. Later, during the times of the prophet Muhammad, people wore Amamah, which protected both the face and the head from the desert sand. The Amamah tradition continued during the reign of the Abbasids and the Umayyads. Later, the concept of wrapping the head with cloth spread to other countries.

Native Americans started wearing head wraps made from cloth or even animal skins. Later turbans became a social status symbol for Turks and other warriors who lived during the Ottoman period. These turbans were huge in size, and the cloth was wrapped around a cone that had a projection at the top.

During the 19th century, the popularity of turbans diminished among the Turks, who shifted more toward a Western style of dress. The fez replaced the turban and was adopted by many religious groups.

Perhaps the rebirth of the turban, as elucidated by the Times, will spur growth of the Turbanism movement.

There are several videos on YouTube demonstrating how to tie a turban, and for those who can't get enough of the twirled topping, there is a tour of
the Turban Museum in Jaipur, India.

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