What's in a Word? Fez

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo:  Wayne Noffsinger / Flickr

fez n. 1. A pillbox-like hat, but taller and tapering; often made of red felt, often with a tassel. 2. A late, lamented New York bar.

The fez, though now purely quaint, has been a symbol of both modernism and backwardness. Although the shape of the hat is ancient, the fez proper dates to an 1826 law by Ottoman emperor Mahmud II that mandated its use among his male subjects. The emperor's hope was that the fez would supplant the turban, and was part of his efforts to modernize nearly every aspect of an empire that stretched from Asia to the Atlantic. One of its most westerly outposts, the town of Fez, was a center of the hatís manufacture and seemingly the source of its name. In any event, Mahmud's law didn't help matters much, as the fez itself came to be a symbol of the exotic East. In this vein, it was adopted by Victorian Englishmen, who when at their leisure would don a fez, slip on a smoking jacket, and repair to their studies to read the latest Sherlock Holmes adventure. Ninety-nine years after Mahmud II's law, one of the greatest reformers in history would resurrect the hat wars. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had kept Turkey from complete dismemberment after its disastrous defeat in World War I. Like Mahmud II, Ataturk believed that one of the reasons for Turkey's weakness was its backwardness, and as president, he legislated revolutionary social changes, most symbolically the demand that Turks adopt Western-style dress and abandon the veil and turban. (Ataturk himself favored a Panama hat.) Lamentably, his list of prohibited fashions also included the fez, which had gone from being a hat of elegant simplicity to a sight gag in comic strips, thanks to those damn silly Englishmen.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.

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