A Crimson Fez
By LIZ HAGER
I’ve had my fez for 15 years. I’d like to claim I purchased it in a souk in Istanbul or Casablanca, but the truth is I got it right here in SF in a long-gone dusty little store on Polk St. I’ve never actually worn the hat outside the house. It’s too small for my head. Far from making an elegant fashion statement, it just looks dopey perched atop my crown. Even so, my fez is worn around the edges and a bit faded. More annoying, no matter how well I clean it, there always seems to be a thin layer of dust impressed into its felt-like surface. But to part with my fez would be unthinkable.
It must have been that luscious crimson that first spoke to the colorist in me. Some sources will tell you that the distinctive red hue was derived originally from the dye produced from the bright red berries of the Turkish kızılcık tree (Cornus Mas), a relative of the common American dogwood. Others will say the dyes were first made in Fez. Many other ethnic groups sported their own version of the fez. How did the eponymous hat come to be associated predominantly with the Ottoman Turks?
Wikipedia reports that the conical shape is of ancient Greek origin and that the Turkic tribes adopted the hat after they conquered Greek Anatolia. I like the more poetic explanation from a guide and imam in Fez. He claimed that 19th c. Ottoman Turks came to Fez seeking education, as it was a renowned center of learning in the Muslim world. They took the hats back with them, and fellow Turks began referring to them as fezzes.
This we do know: in 1826, as part of sweeping reforms, Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, abolished the elaborate turban headdress in favor of the simple fez. Some historical pundits have suggested that it was because this brimless conical hat was less cumbersome in the bowing motion of daily prayers. The correct action of genuflection with a fez on has eluded me—I did not have to tilt my head very far for the hat to fall right off.
In 1925, Mestafa Kemal Attatürk, who led Turkey into the modern age, outlawed the fez, considering it a too-ethnic symbol of Turkey’s “backwards” past, an object of ridicule by the citizens of more modern nations. Punishment for defying the edict was severe and the fez went underground.
There are still a few fez holdouts in the world—Indonesians and Shriners, for example. But then again the hat as a item of daily costume for men has largely disappeared throughout the “modern” world. Too bad, I say.