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The turban

A single piece of cloth that has kept out the elements across centuries and continents

Samantha Weinberg | July/August 2015

CHEEKY EDWARDIAN BATHER, c1900
For a lady to take a dip at the turn of the 19th/20th century required some considerable fuss. She would need a bathing machine, in which she’d change into her swimming dress, before being towed by horse down to the edge of the water – all to preserve the dregs of Victorian modesty. The turban was worn to protect her elaborately coiffed hair from the frizzing effect of the waves; the bigger the barnet, the larger the bonnet. This posing beauty – the Beryl Cook figure of her day – has no real need for either the turban or the machine. Her beach is a photographer’s studio, her sea a painted canvas.

PRINCELY THE MAHARAJAH OF KOCH BIHAR, 1894
The turban is to this maharajah what the kilt is to the true Scot: a badge of identity. The difference is that its job is not to cover the family jewels, but to display them. Here is a gentleman by the name of Colonel H.H. Sir Nripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur, flaunting his untold wealth in the form of the sarpech, a masculine tiara. Koch Bihar is just below the Himalayas and the tipsy tilt of his hat is a local style statement, though one that may have been lost on some of his friends: an Anglophile, he was educated in England, sent his four sons to Eton and lusted after a Welsh beauty, Princess Daisy of Pless. But he died alone in Bexhill-on-Sea, of pneumonia. Not even his splendid headwear could protect him from the British climate.

PAINTERLY “MAN IN A TURBAN”, JAN VAN EYCK, 1433
Strictly speaking and despite its title, the subject of this painting – perhaps the painter himself – is wearing a chaperon. These started life as hoods, but in time grew a long tail, or liripipe, and then a cape (in Charles Perrault’s French fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood was Le Petit Chaperon Rouge). They were worn in the 15th and 16th centuries by men who fancied themselves as fashionable, which gave rise to competition over their length; one prize-winning Florentine chaperon of 1515 ran to a full nine metres of cloth. But Van Eyck – if indeed this pensively severe figure is he – has sensibly tied up the ends, presumably to prevent them from dipping into his paint.

RADICAL “PORTRAIT OF MME DE STAEL”, c1810
Germaine de Staël wrote poetry, travel books and literary criticism, and memorably dismissed Jane Austen as vulgaire. She also saved a dozen people from Robespierre’s guillotine and publicly snubbed Napoleon. Her personal style was equally daring, leading a fashion for dramatic, multi-coloured turbans: the little emperor may have conquered Egypt, but in the salons of Paris, it was de Staël who ruled.

DIRECTIONAL JADE PARFITT, 2015
It takes a certain kind of face to carry off a turban, and Parfitt, a model and television presenter, has it to a T. Her straight nose and oval, Giotto face are the perfect counterpoint to the red-straw version of the Guggenheim Bilbao that’s wrapped around her skull – a catwalk piece created by the milliner Philip Treacy. Half Van Eyck, half raspberry ripple, it looks as if it has stepped out of the seraglio, but only after a quick diversion to Mars.
“Fulani” turban, price on request, by Philip Treacy; black cotton roll-neck, £9.90, by Uniqlo; large rose-gold and pink ring, £625, by Thomas Sabo
PHOTOGRAPHER RICK GUEST
STYLIST OLIVIA POMP 

Hair and make-up Nicky Tavilla

EXOTIC SOPHIA LOREN, 1965
Lesley Blanch, traveller, author of “The Wilder Shores of Love” and connoisseur of the Orient, would surely have approved of this shimmering cod-Turkish confection, not least because she was the inspiration for Loren’s character in “Lady L”, a film of a French novel. It was a view shared by Loren, who often used turbans to turn up the volume on her already extravagant looks – and by Terry O’Neill, who snapped her mooching on the rainy steps of Castle Howard during a break from filming. Perhaps it was the stress of caring for all that tulle in the damps of Yorkshire that she had wearied of; more likely, it was the less-than inspiring script.

POETIC EDITH SITWELL, 1956
Six feet tall and built like a starved stork, Edith Sitwell seldom appeared in public unbeturbanned. She may have been drawing the eye from the exclamation mark of her nose, which her father, Sir George, had tried to flatten with a nose-truss. Her personal style was so strong, it outlasted her poetry. Aspiring eccentrics don’t often quote, “Still falls the rain – dark as the world of man, black as our loss”. But you can bet they’ll wear a turban.

DRAMATIC HEDY LAMARR, 1939
Yes, Lamarr was exquisitely beautiful, with lips shaped for kissing and a grace that belied her real name (Hedwig Kiesler, born in Vienna in 1914). More alluring still is the fact that, during the second world war, Lamarr helped develop and patent a way of hopping between radio frequencies to stop enemy hackers blocking radio-controlled missiles. This was a woman writhing with brains – it’s not just her hat that’s smart.

ELEMENTAL TUAREG BOY, MALI, 2005
Let’s not forget that the turban was born practical. When the desert wind starts to blow, whipping up sand at stinging speed, it is advisable – in fact vital – to cover up. That is the original and enduring end of the tagelmust, worn by the Tuareg of the Sahara. It’s traditionally dyed with indigo – the Tuareg are known as the “blue men of the desert”, as the dye from the cloth often leaches permanently into their skin – and usually covers the lower part of the face, as it is a cultural no-no for adult men to show their mouths and noses to strangers. Their turbans, like Van Eyck’s and Philip Treacy’s, have tails – but the purpose is privacy, not pomp..

INSPIRATIONAL DENISE POIRET, c1919
The designer Paul Poiret, aka “le Magnifique”, combined an instinct for what women wanted to wear – he was the first to banish the corset – with a passion for “The Arabian Nights”, which released them into a magical realm of harem pants, tunics and turbans. His muse was his wife, “the expression of all my ideals”; together they hosted costume balls at which the beau monde danced in Turkish slippers. Then, in 1928, Denise took off her turban and divorced him; no coincidence that, soon after, Coco Chanel pinched Poiret’s couture crown.

SENSUAL BIANCA JAGGER, 1974
Has anyone spun the disco ball as classily as the first Mrs Jagger? Whether mounted on a white horse on her 30th birthday at Studio 54 or simmering under this sequinned turban at the London Palladium, she embodied the look-at-me ethic of the dance floor. This get-up, with its slashed-to-the-waist satin baby-doll dress and fine mesh gloves, endures: in his SS15 collection for Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane sent his models rocking down the catwalk in white satin and leopardskin, topped with close-wrapped, sequinned turbans. They straddled two temperatures: hot, and cool. Just like Jagger.

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