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The Fez

Though it’s named for the city of Fez, Morocco, the fez is a man’s hat that dates back to ancient Phoenicia.  The Phoenicians were active traders and colonizers all over the Mediterranean, including in what is today Morocco, so it’s not surprising that the fez caught on there.  What is remarkable is that it’s still worn today.

Like all fashions, the fez has come and gone in different parts of the world.  It disappeared from the eastern Mediterranean, where it originated, but was reintroduced centuries later.  The fez caught on in the Balkans sometime around the Renaissance, possibly inspired by a kind of military cap resembling the fez that was common in the Mediterranean at the time.

In 1826 the fez got a real boost when Sultan Mahmud II banned the turban throughout the Ottoman Empire.  His thinking was that he wanted to modernize Turkey, and saw the turban as a symbol that separated east from west.  “Modernization” in 19th century Turkey often meant “becoming more like Europeans”.  The sultan hired French military men to advise the Ottoman army on modern military organization, and the old uniforms had to go, as well.  The baggy trousers and elaborate coats of the Janissary (the elite Ottoman army corps) were done away with, in favor of a European-looking uniform that more closely resembled what the French wore.

Left: Ottoman military garb ca. 1700.  Right: Ottoman military garb ca. 1850.

Notice that in the older Ottoman uniforms, the turban still had a place, but by the 1850s, it was absent from the French military.  Notice also that the fez was around both before and after Mahmud II’s decree banning the turban.  When the turban ban took effect, it was the fez that replaced it.  It became a symbol of Ottoman identity.  The fez also caught on in other parts of the world, spreading throughout eastern Arab lands, both in those controlled by the Ottomans and those that weren’t, as well as into Muslim areas of western India (now Pakistan).  It also gained popularity in sub-Saharan Africa, and remained popular in the Balkans into the early 20th century.

The nexus of the popularity of the fez was still the Ottoman Empire.  By the 1870s, demand for fezzes was so great that Turkish industry couldn’t keep up with the demand.  Fez production took off in Austria-Hungary, which imported fezzes to Turkey.  In 1908, fez demand took its first major hit.  Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country of mostly Muslim Slavs that the Ottomans had controlled for centuries.  This resulted in an Ottoman boycott of Austrian goods, and fezzes became somewhat scarce.  To deal with the sudden fez shortage, men started to wear other kinds of hats, and even the turban saw something of a resurgence.

The fez got its most fatal blow over a decade later.  After World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the borders of the country we call Turkey today were established.  A charismatic Turk named Mustafa Kemal rebranded himself as Kemal Ataturk (meaning “Kemal of the Turks”) and set about modernizing (re: Westernizing) Turkey beyond what any sultan had ever imagined.  Ataturk, sometimes referred to as “the George Washington of Turkey”, was offered the position of sultan, but believed that the monarchy should be abolished, and turned it down.  He worked on promoting literacy throughout Turkey, and did so by ordering a new Turkish alphabet.  Until the 1920s, Turkish was written in a script based on Arabic writing, which Ataturk (and many other linguists) felt didn’t fit Turkish phonology well at all, so modern Turkish with its Roman characters was born.  Ataturk also believed in a secular Turkey, and discouraged religious institutions from having a role in the new government.  Ataturk and his reformers were referred to as “the Young Turks”, an expression still used in English to refer to any group of idealistic and enthusiastic reformers.

One casualty of Ataturk and his Young Turks was the fez.  In 1923, Ataturk made it compulsory for all civil servants in Turkey to wear Western-style hats instead of fezzes.  He went a little further, later passing the Hat Law of 1925, which banned the fez and the turban in Turkey.  What were once symbols of Turkish identity were now abolished, as Ataturk set out to send a signal that Turkey was looking to become a modern state more in line with Europe than the Middle East.  In 1934, Turkey went further, banning veils and headscarves and any other religious-based clothing, in a move to really secularize the country.

Ataturk holding his Panama hat soon after the Hat Law was passed.
Today the fez is still worn in some places.  It’s quite common in modern Cyprus, as well as in parts of Africa and Asia.  It’s not popular in much of the Arab world, since it’s seen as the garb of foreign conquerors (like the Turks).  The one exception is Morocco, where the fez is seen as a symbol of Moroccan nationalism.  Even the king of Morocco and his royal court wear the fez.  The fez was historically a symbol of resistance to French colonial occupation in Morocco, which is why Moroccan feelings toward it are pretty much the inverse of what is felt in the rest of the Arab world.

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The royal court of King Mohammed VI of Morocco


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