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Anatolian Headdresses – A Language to Wear

by Kenneth Cline
photos by Chuck Wells


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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.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Turkey Village life Women (rights/issues)