The 18th Century fashion for Turbans

It’s been a while since we wrote a fashion post, so to make up for that we’re going to take a look at a piece of headgear – the turban, a piece of headwear that according to Vogue is making a comeback for this Spring and Summer.

We were inspired to write this post having watched Amber Butchart’s fascinating programme on BBC4, ‘A Stitch In Time’, during which she looked at the outfit worn by Miss Dido Elizabeth Belle. Nina Mikhaila, historical costumier and her team recreated the outfit including the turban, which proved to be quite a challenge, trying to find the correct fabric and to recreate the style itself.

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, c.1778. Formerly attributed to Johann Zoffany.

Amber speculated that the turban was perhaps worn as part of a fancy-dress costume and made Dido appear even more exotic; whilst in part she is correct, there is something a little more significant about the origin of Dido’s turban which Amber  wasn’t aware of at the time making the programme (she does now, however, but we can’t spill the beans on that one yet, so it will be a story for another time!).

Dido Elizabeth Belle

 

The portrait of Dido is so unusual in so much as that Dido was not a servant but the daughter of Sir John Lindsay. The painting depicts her with her cousin Miss Elizabeth Murray was reputed to have been painted by Zoffany c.1778. Whilst the turban had been worn by men in the UK during the earlier parts of the eighteenth-century, along with oriental-inspired banyans or wrapping gowns, it was not yet a common sight as a fashion accessory for women. There were, as always, a few exceptions, with the likes of Margaret Kemble Gage, sporting a turban in this portrait by John Singleton Copley c.1771, but examples like this were unusual.

Mrs Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, 1771.
Mrs Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley, 1771. Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.

Turbans didn’t take centre stage until towards the end of the century as wigs and ‘high hair’ had been the predominant fashion statement – a turban plonked on top of one of those wigs wouldn’t really have worked!

A lady in a fine room dressed in macaroni style with high hair standing in profile to left looks directly out with her fan held open. January or February 1773.
A lady in a fine room dressed in macaroni style with high hair standing in profile to left looks directly out with her fan held open. January or February 1773. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The turban presented an image of Turkey and the exotic east; it was something worn at a fancy-dress ball rather than everyday wear, as you can see from this extract in the Stamford Mercury of 1773 which was attended by one of Lord Mansfield’s nieces.

Lord Chief Baron’s daughters, Miss Nancy a Sultana, with a turban quite brilliant with a profusion of diamonds and Miss Betsey, a country girl selling eggs and the other two also in pretty attire. Hon. Miss Kitty MacKenzie, sister to the Earl of Seaforth, a milkmaid; Miss Fletcher, a Sultana; Miss Lindsay, niece to Lord Mansfield, a shepherdess.

Portrait of a woman, traditionally identified as Lady Hervey by Angelica Kauffmann c1770. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art
Portrait of a woman, traditionally identified as Lady Hervey by Angelica Kauffmann c1770. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art

Just a few years later, however, an advert in the Ipswich Journal September 1778, implied that the turban was the latest fashion statement when attending a ball and was linked to the artist, Johann Zoffany.

Loiacon, Ladies Hair Dresser, begs leave to acquaint his customers and those ladies that will honour him with their commands, that he has with him an assortment of powders and pomatums, at 15 shillings each, French powder at 1 shilling. During the fair, he intends to dress ladies’ hair on a ball day, at 2 shilling and 6 pence.  The Zoffany with Rubin, as the newest fashion, like a turban (he likewise differs various ways in dress or undress) which appear neater than any cap whatever.

We move on to January 1787 when the turban was very much the headgear to be seen wearing for balls as we found at this account.

The ball on Thursday night, in honour of her Majesty’s birthday, fell nothing short of general expectation. The number and brilliancy of the company attending having never been equalled in this country upon any similar occasion. The Ladies were dressed with great neatness and elegance. Many of the Ladies of fashion in different coloured satins, ornamented with festoons of flowers, crepe, foil etc. A very prevailing headdress was the turban cap, decorated with feathers, cut steel, pearls and diamonds.

Over in Paris by 1790, the turban was all the rage:

The caterers of fashion in Paris, have availed themselves of the late grand spectacle at the Champs de Mars by introducing a new head-dress for the ladies, called the ‘Confederation Turban’ and the volatile beaux of fashion have just introduced the national colours in their striped silk stockings, which are termed the ‘National Gaitars’.

Lady Henrietta Cavendish-Bentinck (1737-1827), Countess of Stamford by George Romney
Lady Henrietta Cavendish-Bentinck (1737-1827), Countess of Stamford by George Romney; National Trust, Dunham Massey.

In 1795 newspapers offered helpful, detailed guides as to the correct items of fashion to be worn and for what occasion, just so that you didn’t get it wrong.

An Evening Dress

The hair dressed in light curls and ringlets, Turban of light blue crepe; bandeau of gold foil, set with diamonds and pearls; the hair turned up, mixed with the turban, and the ends returned in ringlets. Jacket and petticoat, of muslin; four plaits across the petticoat; the jacket turned on the back with lace; Sash of blue satin ribband; three strings of pearls round the neck; pearly ear-rings; blue satin shoes; white gloves; Swandown muff.

Mrs Mary Chatfield by John Opie
Mrs Mary Chatfield by John Opie; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

At the turn of the century, we find that turbans are no longer the domain of evening dress but are now entering everyday wear from around 1802 onwards.

We finish with this self-portrait of the artist Marie-Elizabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun who also followed the turban fashion as we see in this self-portrait of 1800.

Self portrait of Marie-Elizabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1800. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum
Self-portrait of Marie-Elizabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1800. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum

To discover more, we recommend the book by Paula Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Elizabeth Belle.

If stories about women whose lives didn’t conform to the norm of the day interest you, then you might enjoy two of our biographies:  An Infamous Mistress and A Georgian Heroine.

 

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8 thoughts on “The 18th Century fashion for Turbans

  1. High hair might have been the predominant fashion statement for a time but it was not a good look. And it restricted women’s movement, even more than tight clothing did. But the soft turban on soft hair was dreamy, exotic and colourful, plus it did not restrict movement. Dido even had delicate jewels sewn onto silk (or whatever her material was).

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  2. If I recall correctly, Georgette Heyer often garbs elderly dowagers in turbans. I wonder if that’s because the turban was less fashionable later in the Regency and thus suggested the wearer was old-fashioned? As for the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, I’ve always been struck by her curious gesture of playfully pointing at her cheek. It’s a remarkable portrait that actually inspired me to put a mixed-race Jamaican heiress at the center of a mystery set in London 1813. I’ll be anxious to hear more about the origin of Dido’s turban when you’re able to share. Thanks for the post!

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    1. Sarah Murden

      Like fashion today, hats go in and out of vogue, so it would make sense for Heyer to have portraited her elderly dowagers in turbans. You’re quite correct about the portrait of Dido, it is a playful gesture and as soon as we’re able to share more about the portrait and the turban we will; still some research to be validated first 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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