Rarely has a piece of headgear been as “political” as the tarbouche. This little brimless hat, most often red, in molded felt, soft or rigid, adorned with a tassel attached to a black silk cord, was long ago assimilated into the Middle East and North Africa. However, it also represents one of the first cultural appropriations in history, since it was the Ottoman Empire that “borrowed” it from the costumes of Asia Minor, in particular, from Greek and Albanian culture. It was the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II who, in 1826, decided to open the Empire to Europe, abandoning the imperial turban in the process and adopting the pharion worn by Greek rebels, whose black tassel then reached the bottom of the neck.

A symbol of dignity

But the tarbouche’s roots extend further than the Ottoman Empire, since its name, deformed, comes from two Persian words: sar (head) and pus (to cover). A top-of-the-range tarbouche was made with the best loden from Austria and its red dye was entrusted to the master dyers of Fez, who created it from a variety of berries. Hence its popularity in Morocco which, while not under Ottoman domination, adopted it as a complement to the costume of the kingdom’s dignitaries. In Turkey, it was not until the reforms of Atatürk, and in Egypt those of Nasser, that the wearing of the tarbouche was abandoned, relegated to become a retrograde accessory which hindered assimilation with the rest of the world and the entry into modernity.

Morocco, for its part, has preserved it as a symbol of resistance to French colonial ambitions. The countries of the Levant have retained a certain fondness for it: it has embodied masculine dignity for too long. The gradual disappearance of this hat, which was a powerful social marker for so long, carried away at the same time a whole approach to living made up of nonchalance and good nature.

The smoking cap

Strangely, the fashion for the tarbouche spread in certain European and British circles during the second half of the 19th century. A travel souvenir of the Grand Tour or brought back, among other trophies, from Crimea, the fez, or tarbouche, arrives in England along with a whole series of accessories: Cigarette smoking was a habit introduced by men returning from the Crimean War of 1854-1856. The new English name for the tarbouche, “the smoking cap”, indicates its use.

Smoking caps became popular during the 1850s. They were often worn with smoking jackets, a kind of short robe-de-chambre, of velvet, cashmere, plush, merino, or printed flannel; lined with bright colors, ornamented with brandenburgs, olives or large buttons. Men put them on when they withdrew to the smoking room for an after-dinner cigar or cigarette,” the V&A Museum tells us. Sumptuous contemporary specimens can still be found at Lock & Co Hatters in London.

The target of feminists

All this confirms to us that the tarbouche is an exclusively male accessory, steeped in history and stories of war and exploration. Extending the silhouette like a dot on an “i”, it forces you to keep your head high and confers a few centimeters to the wearer. Its tassel, which quivers at the slightest sign of emotion, expresses what the face refuses to betray. It is therefore a target of choice for feminists in countries where it holds a sense of tradition, one more emblem to take from men, the ultimate clothing barrier to break down, even if it is no longer worn, if only to take revenge on history.

Yves Saint-Laurent, whose love for Morocco we know, appropriated it for his collections, along with the djellaba and the burnous. Canadian-Lebanese artist Mouna Rebeiz has created a series of paintings depicting naked women crowned with tarbouches with the intention of blurring the lines between masculine and feminine. The “Le Tarbouche” exhibition, which took place in 2015 at the Saatchi Gallery in London, invited creators from all walks of life, including Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Lanvin, Eva Jiricna, Elie Saab, Philip Treacy, Emilio Pucci, Camila Batmanghelidjh, Kelly Anne Rose, and Huishan Zhang, in collaboration with Swarovski, to reinterpret the red cap.

Closer to home, the young designer Elias el-Haddad was inspired by it to found his brand, Boshies and the brand’s first creations where large red woolen caps with a black line in memory of the forgotten brandenburg. It’s crazy that a simple hat that hardly anyone wears anymore still has so much to say!