The red conical hat with a black tassel is very familiar sight for many movie and television fans. Characters and extras in movies set in Egypt like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark are often seen wearing them. Plus, Doctor Who’s 11th Doctor has an affinity for a good fez as well. But beyond their iconic shape, most people don’t anything of the fascinating history they represent.
The earliest examples of the fez come from Morocco, and gets its name from a city there called Fez. They could be close-fitting, or have more of the tall, conical shape we think of today. This style later gained traction through the Ottoman Empire. Fezzes became part of Ottoman military uniforms in 1826, and later were mandated dress for civil servants as well. In an attempt to modernize his country in 1829, Sultan Muhmad II banned the wearing of turbans. But Muslim religious practices required men to keep their heads covered. This lead to the widespread adoption of fezzes as an alternative. The materials used and method of wrapping a turban carry great social significance and can act as a way to denote wealth. By moving people towards wearing fezzes instead, the Sultan was promoting a more egalitarian mode of dress.
Nowadays, fezzes you see are always red and probably have a black tassel. But when they were first created, there was a much larger degree of variation in color and shape. Originally, fezzes were wrapped with cloth and were some combination of red, white and black, but eventually settled on a rich, dark red. When synthetic red dyes were invented in the late 19th century, production of fezzes shifted to factories of the Czech Republic. At that time, it was under the rule of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary at the time. The relationship between Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottomans was a shaky truce. They all wanted control of the Balkan region in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-78. The Congress of Berlin in 1881 brought them to the table with Italy, Britain, and Germany to divvy up the spoils.
The influx of cheap goods from Europe, like the fez, was already undercutting the Ottoman economy. So, when Austria-Hungary announced their annexation of Ottoman-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908, they couldn’t let it stand. This transgression resulted in a boycott of all Austrian goods and was known as The Fez Boycott.
The Fez Comes to Great Britain
In the UK, fezzes became associated with a man’s smoking ensemble at the turn of the 20th century. “Orientalism,” or the fetishization of Eastern cultures, was all the rage, and a fez could mark a man as sophisticated and well-traveled. So, depending on where your Steampunk character has traveled, they could very well be sporting one of these fashionable statements in the home.
Want to find out more awesome history about a steam-era hat? Read my post about the origin of the Bowler.