Reinventing the tarboosh: a fez for the 21st Century

Many of us know the fez as a comical red hat with a black tassel – but it has a complex history in the Arab world, which this Lebanese designer is trying to change.

In the West, many might associate a cylindrical scarlet hat with comedy sketches or cymbal-smashing mechanical monkeys. Unfortunately, this a reductive image that lingers long after the age of Orientalism; in the Middle East and wider Arab world the fez carries far more cultural resonance.

Though this hat is known in some countries as the fez because the Moroccan city of Fez was famous for its tanning industry and lustrous red dyes, it’s known as the tarboosh in most of the Arab countries that were former Ottoman territories.

The tarboosh was introduced originally to replace the turban in the Ottoman military. Turbans had been considered to be too Islamic and old-fashioned for a modern, country-conquering imperial force, but this ironically was the same fate that the tarboosh would meet with 100 years later when Kemal Atatürk banned it. Among his modernising reforms in Turkey, this quirky, red, Eastern hat had no place in a secular, post-imperial country.

Originally a male accessory, Arab men continued to wear it for generations and the tarboosh is still a part of traditional dress in some parts of the world. But can Lebanese fashion brand Boshies turn this former imperial ornament into a fashion statement for Lebanese men and women – and the wider Arab world?

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