- On 30/03/2019
- In Turkish Culture
Something You Didn’t Know About the Fez
It is something of an irony that the fez, a famous, round and often red piece of headwear, is among the favourite souvenirs of tourists visiting Turkey every year. These hats often appear on our TV sets in films or holiday commercials about the country. Whether in an entertaining Spain or Turkey advert in which a flamenco dancer and carpet seller compete in a volleyball match, or the classic film One Night in Istanbul telling the story of two Liverpool FC-crazy cab drivers who travel to the city to see their team play in the 2005 Champions League final, fezzes are a noticeable feature.
There is a funny irony in this association between the fez and Turkey as the wearing of these was once banned in 1925 by the country’s first President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As a Westerniser, he had viewed fezzes as a remnant of the Ottoman past that distinguished Turkish citizens from the Europeans he hoped they would emulate. From then on, the people of Turkey were required to wear the hats and caps of the Western World.
So what does the fez really stand for? How did it work its way into Turkish history?
The wearing of the fez originated in the Ottoman Empire during 19th Century. This period was one of great change for the Ottomans, who set out on an ambitious programme of reform to address concerns about military weakness and the strength and stability of their state. They began to borrow from Europe, copying Western armies and taking on new ideas about government and national belonging.
This borrowing also impacted Ottoman attire. Soldiers and sultans adopted French-style uniforms while government officials and civil servants would wear shiny European shoes, suits, ties and starched shirts. With all the European cultural influences however, came another new development, something uniquely Ottoman. This innovation came in the form of the fez.
The fez was a giant step for the Ottomans. Laws had previously governed clothing in the empire since the 16th century; they had distinguished the sultan’s non-Muslim subjects, mainly Christians and Jews from their Muslim counterparts. In 1829 when Sultan Mahmud II decided that all Ottoman officials would wear the fez, regardless of religion however, this would all change. As Mahmud II once declared “From now on I do not wish to recognise Muslims outside the mosque, Christians outside the church, or Jews outside the synagogue.” The fez for its part, became a symbol of secular citizenship and could be worn by every Ottoman man, it was intended to bind all the sultan’s subjects together.
So there it is, those round red hats that we so often enjoy, find comical, exotic or interesting, once represented a profound change in the history of the Ottoman Empire. They stood for citizenship and a new far-reaching Ottoman ideal of national unity in a time of distress and uncertainty.