The turban from Turkish Pashas to the settlers

My great-grandfather was a tailor in Budapest, and at his request my grandmother became a milliner so that the family business would include not only clothing but also hats. After World War II, my grandfather “didn’t come back” from the death camp, and my grandmother, who until then managed the household, went to work to support my mother and worked as a saleswoman in the hat department of a department store in communist Hungary.

She proudly showed her colorful and wonderful collection of hats to her friends in the gray and boring socialist country. Luckily, this fashion show happened only rarely because I was very embarrassed when she came to kindergarten or school with all kinds of strange hats.

1943, Hungary, Szeged,
Fortepan / Lissák Tivadar

What I hated the most was her turban, which she wore in an attempt to cover her gray hair or when it had been a long time since she went to the hairdresser. I was terribly ashamed of my grandmother, she was so strange, different from the other grandmothers. Apart from her, I didn’t see a single woman in Hungary wearing a turban then.

The word turban, meaning a textile fabric structure wrapped around the head, originates from the Persian darband. We know its many variations – it was worn in several cultures from Mesopotamia to Greece, from Sikhs to Muslims and Jews, from India to Southeast Asia, from the Middle East to Africa, but usually by men. The turban became popular among European women in the early 1920s, partly due to the advent of the automobile, as the tight-fitting head coverings helped to protect the hair and head from the elements. The turban became popular during World War II, perhaps because women were engaged in manual labor in factories and farms, and could be made with minimal sewing skills. It was excellent at hiding unkempt hair in times of need.

Turban as fashion item in Hungary, 1942, photo: Fortepan / Bojár Sándor

The turban was very fashionable in the 1940s in Hungary. It was considered one of the most important fashion accessories among elegant Hungarian women. The bold change in women’s fashion of the 20th century brought the headdress of men from the exotic East which became a fashion accessory among modern Western women. Katalin Karády, the greatest fashion icon and diva (and Jewish rescuer) from Budapest of the era, wore it proudly on her head and with her, every middle-class woman in Hungary wore a magnificent turban.

Katalin Karády, the Hungarian diva with turban

The Auschwitz album containing photographs from the extermination camp documents a Hungarian transport of Orthodox mainly from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Hungary which includes women who wore turbans, indicating that they imitated Budapest fashion, even if they were religious.

The ultra-Orthodox women who immigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe brought with them the turban, which in Israel became from a fashionable accessory to a practical head covering that religious married women had to wear. In the most ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, for example, women continued to wear this head covering that had become unfashionable. No longer the stylistic turban that embodies femininity and creativity but the simplified version, devoid of aesthetic value that does not stand out, but actually hides the beauty of women. This type of outfit accessory has become standard among ultra-Orthodox women for decades.

Turbans in Auschwitz album  (Yad Vashem)

However, in recent years, the exotic turban has been revived on the heads of orthodox settlers who were looking for a use of an authentic “Jewish” tradition in a modern version and found exactly this head covering. Although it has nothing to do with Judaism, it only reminds of a fashion associated with an era remembered as evil and cursed. It is clear that they are not aware of the fashion-history of the turban. But the novelty of this “Orthodox Jewish” head covering fits perfectly with their ideology. The meaning of the turban was once secular and modern in Hungary, for them nowdays in Israel it symbolizes separation from the secular, worldy society, and is an identification with Orthodoxy, the Judaism of an ethnic (ashkenazi Eastern-Europian) group and the modernization of the “authentic” Mea Shearim. In addition, the ornate head covering of the ultra-Orthodox women also sets them apart dramatically from the Palestinian women who wear the traditional hijab in the West Bank.

However, they are the complete opposite of the women wearing turbans in the Mea Shearim: their huge and extreme colorful turban creations do not reflect modesty, but rather symbolize loudness and a demand for attention. This extremist orthodox turban fashion simultaneously indicates a lack of historical knowledge about the origin of the turban and at the same time also indicates their difference from secular society while associates them with the old World of orthodoxy in their mind.

There is no doubt that this modern orthodox turban is eye-catching but cheap, which greatly increases the size of the women’s heads and, according to their intentions, perhaps also their importance. Traditional Jewish modesty has been replaced by the desire to stand out, by the need to be present, shown, to steal attention.

My smart hatter grandmother, if she were still alive, would obviously have made many new very expensive and colorful megaturbans, but in the process she would have laughed at them and their transparent intentions.

About the Author
Zsuzsa Shiri was born in Budapest, Hungary, living in Israel since 1992. She is working as Israeli sorrespondent for Hungarian media from 2003.