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Anatolian Headdresses – A Language to Wear

A profile of the lost art of Turkish Anatolian headdresses.

If a young woman in a traditional Turkish village wanted to express herself, she had few opportunities. Handicrafts such as carpets, kilims (flatweaves), and the scarves of headdresses offered rare chances for her to be creative and expressive. Over the centuries village women have achieved eloquence in their efforts. Connoisseurs of Turkish folk art have long appreciated the artistry of their carpets and kilims. At the same time the creative efforts applied to headdresses have suffered from an unfortunate neglect.

Anatolian headdresses traditionally have given village women their own language. The colorful headpieces express something about the wearer in at least two of their three components. The bas suslemesi (Turkish for “head decoration”) or simply baslik (“head thing”) consists of an embroidered scarf wrapped around a small fez and hung with gold or silver ornaments. The jewelry told a woman’s economic status. The scarves, particularly the embroidered edging, called oya, revealed more personal information.

The scarf is by far the most expressive element of the headdress. Although a village woman could purchase the fez and jewelry in shops, she made the scarf herself, coloring the hand-spun cotton or silk with natural dyes extracted from leaves and roots. An adolescent girl wore only a simple scarf until she married and received jewelry with her trousseau. An abundance of jewelry ornamenting the scarf would suggest an older woman who has married, if not one who has been widowed and remarried. Since it included most of her movable wealth, in a sense the headdress was a woman’s savings bank worn on the head.

The colors often express emotions, although the meanings may vary from region to region. Generally, yellow means a loss of hope in love. Black stands for severity rather than for mourning; older women wear black. Green speaks of hope, while pink or blue designates youth. White traditionally meant purity, but in modern times came to mean happiness as well. The royal purple signifies wealth. “The heart of the wearer of white is full, but the pocket of the wearer of purple is full,” goes an old Turkish saying.

A combination of colors on a scarf tells how many sons a woman has. Two colors means two sons; three colors, three sons; and so on. Since a village woman’s status in Turkish society depends heavily on producing sons, her honor increases as she adds another color.

The oya, the embroidered edging of the scarf, provides clues to domestic life. Flower motifs are the most common, generally indicating happiness, with roses signifying pregnancy. But an oya in the shape of a garland of thorns suggests the sharp tongue of a critical mother-in-law. In village society a young bride customarily went to live in the house of her husband’s family, so a harsh mother-in-law could truly make her life miserable. On the other hand, a woman wearing a certain type of green crenulated oya was saying she got along well with her husband’s mother.

In traditional village life, a woman wore her headdress frequently until she gave birth. Then she had too much work to do – headdresses are anything but practical! – and would use it only for ceremonial occasions, such as weddings. Today, traditional headdresses sometimes are worn at the ceremonies preceding a Turkish wedding, such as the kina gecesi, when the bride and her friends put reddish henna on their palms the night before the wedding, and at the taki, the day after the wedding, when the bride and groom receive monetary gifts from family and friends.

On these occasions when the headdresses are carefully removed for storage, only the older women remember what the colors and different types of oya are supposed to represent. This declining appreciation of headdresses reflects a change in Anatolian society. Mechanization in the early 1950s brought cash crops and destroyed the stable traditional life based on subsistence farming. Millions of people migrated to the cities while those remaining on the farm began to act and dress more like city people.

“Everything has changed in the villages,” says Mrs. Nezihe Araz, a Turkish journalist who has been collecting headdresses from all parts of the Anatolian plateau since 1960. “There is no more need for a woman to carry a bank on her head. The villagers put their money into tractors and land. The young village girls today prefer white wedding gowns over the traditional marriage costumes and headdresses.”

Even though village women in some regions of Turkey continue to make the embroidered scarves for commercial purposes, the quality is far inferior to what it once was. Asian textiles have replaced the hand-spun materials, natural dyes, and block printing of the traditional scarves. The oya, simpler than before, is now made with nylon thread, which gives a cheap glossy look, rather than cotton.

For years Mrs. Araz has been trying to convince the Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture to place her collection in a museum. “The making of headdresses is a dying art, and it should survive,” she says. “After I pass away, the knowledge of this art will die.” She is unaware of any other serious collectors and believes her collection of 38 Anatolian headdresses, many of them more than 100 years old, is the largest in the world.

Although she realizes that Turkish women today do not have the time or financial incentives to produce headscarves in the old manner, especially when they can express themselves more directly, Mrs. Araz is saddened by the decline of the Anatolian headdress. She thinks the culture has lost a certain grace and quiet beauty. “We got rid of our old values. I believe that instead of copying everything we see in the west, we should turn our eyes to our own heritage and try to emulate what we had then. Turkey would be a better place for it.”

Kenneth Cline is a writer who has traveled extensively throughout the Near East.

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