Types of Asian Traditional Headgear or Hats

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Sikh Turban - Traditional Asian Headgear

Sikh man in turban
Sikh man in turban at the Golden Temple or Darbar Sahib. Huw Jones / Lonely Planet Images

Baptized men of the Sikh religion wear a turban called the dastaar as a symbol of holiness and honor. The turban also helps to manage their long hair, which is never cut according to Sikh tradition; turban-wearing as part of Sikhism dates back to the time of Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708). 

The colorful dastaar is a very visible symbol of a Sikh man's faith around the world. However, it can conflict with military attire laws, bicycle and motorcycle helmet requirements, prison uniform rules, etc. In many countries, special exemptions are given to Sikh military and police officers to wear the dastaar while on duty.

After the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001 in the United States, a number of ignorant people assaulted Sikh Americans. The attackers blamed all Muslims for the terror attacks and assumed that men in turbans must be Muslims.

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Fez - Traditional Asian Hats

Man wearing fez
Man wearing a fez pours tea. Per-Andre Hoffmann / Picture Press

The fez, also called tarboosh in Arabic, is a type of hat shaped like a truncated cone with a tassel on top. It was popularized across the Muslim world in the nineteenth century when it became part of the Ottoman Empire's new military uniforms. The fez, a simple felt hat, replaced the elaborate and expensive silk turbans that had been symbols of wealth and power for Ottoman elites before that time. Sultan Mahmud II banned turbans as part of his modernization campaign.

Muslims in other nations from Iran to Indonesia adopted similar hats during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The fez is a convenient design for prayers since it has not brim to bump when the worshiper touches his forehead to the floor. It does not provide much protection from the sun, however. Because of its exotic appeal. many western fraternal organizations also adopted the fez, including most famously the Shriners.

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The Chador - Traditional Asian Headgear

Girls in chador taking a selfie, Indonesia
Girls wearing chador take a selfie, Indonesia. Yasser Chalid / Moment

The chador or hijab is an open, half-circular cloak that covers a woman's head, and can be tucked in or held closed. Today, it is worn by Muslim women from Somalia to Indonesia, but it long predates Islam.

Originally, Persian (Iranian) women wore the chador as early as the Achaemenid era (550-330 BCE). Upper-class women veiled themselves as a sign of modesty and purity. The tradition started with Zoroastrian women, but the tradition melded easily with the Prophet Muhammad's urging that Muslims dress modestly. During the reign of the modernizing Pahlavi shahs, wearing the chador was first banned in Iran, and then later re-legalized but strongly discouraged. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the chador became compulsory for Iranian women.

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East Asian Conical Hat - Traditional Asian Hats

Vietnamese woman in conical hat
A Vietnamese woman wears a traditional conical hat. Martin Puddy / Stone

Unlike many other forms of Asian traditional headgear, the conical straw hat does not carry religious significance. Called the douli in China, do'un in Cambodia, and non la in Vietnam, the conical hat with its silk chin strap is a very practical sartorial choice. Sometimes called "paddy hats" or "coolie hats," they keep the wearer's head and face safe from sun and rain. They can also be dipped into the water to provide evaporative relief from the heat.

Conical hats may be worn by men or women. They are particularly popular with farm workers, construction workers, market ladies, and others who work outdoors. However, high fashion versions sometimes appear on Asian runways, particularly in Vietnam, where the conical hat is considered an important element of the traditional attire.

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The Korean Horsehair Gat - Traditional Asian Hats

Museum figure of man wearing gat, traditional Korean hat
This museum figure is wearing a gat, or traditional Korean scholar's hat. via Wikimedia

Traditional headgear for men during the Joseon Dynasty, the Korean gat is made of woven horsehair over a frame of thin bamboo strips. The hat served the practical purpose of protecting a man's topknot, but more importantly, it marked him as a scholar. Only married men who had passed the gwageo examination (Confucian civil service exam) were allowed to wear one.

Meanwhile, Korean women's headgear at that time consisted of a gigantic wrapped braid that extended out around the head. See, for example, this photograph of Queen Min.

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The Arab Keffiyeh - Traditional Asian Headgear

Jordanian man in kaffiyeh headscarf
An elderly Bedouin man at Petra, Jordan, wears a traditional scarf called kaffiyeh. Mark Hannaford / AWL Images

The keffiyeh, also called kufiya or shemagh, is a square of light cotton worn by men in the desert regions of Southwest Asia. It is most commonly associated with Arabs, but may also be worn by Kurdish, Turkish, or Jewish men. Common color schemes include red and white (in the Levant), all white (in the Gulf States), or black and white (a symbol of Palestinian identity).

The keffiyeh is a very practical piece of desert headgear. It keeps the wearer shaded from the sun, and can be wrapped around the face to protect from dust or sandstorms. Legend holds that the checkered pattern originated in Mesopotamia, and represented fishing nets. The rope circlet that holds the keffiyeh in place is called an agal.

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The Turkmen Telpek or Furry Hat - Traditional Asian Hats

Elderly Turkmen man in telpek hat
An elderly man in Turkmenistan wearing the traditional telpek hat. yaluker on Flickr.com

Even when the sun is blazing down and the air is simmering at 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), a visitor to Turkmenistan will spot men wearing giant furry hats. An immediately recognizable symbol of Turkmen identity, the telpek is a round hat made from sheepskin with all of the wool still attached. Telpeks come in black, white, or brown, and Turkmen men wear them in all kinds of weather. 

Elderly Turkmen claim that the hats keep them cool by keeping the sun off of their heads, but this eyewitness remains skeptical. White telpeks are often reserved for special occasions, while the black or brown ones are for everyday wear.

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Kyrgyz Ak-Kalpak or White Hat - Traditional Asian Hats

Kyrgyz eagle hunter in traditional hat
A Kyrgyz eagle hunter wears a traditional hat. tunart / E+

As with the Turkmen telpek, the Kyrgyz kalpak is a symbol of national identity. Formed from four panels of white felt with traditional patterns embroidered on them, the kalpak is used to keep the head warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It is considered a nearly sacred object, and must never be placed on the ground.

The prefix "ak" means "white," and this national symbol of Kyrgyzstan is always that color. Plain white ak-kalpaks without embroidery are worn for special occasions.  

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The Burka - Traditional Asian Headgear

Afghan women in the burka
Afghan women wearing full body veils or burkas. David Sacks / Image Bank

The burka or burqa is a full-body cloak worn by Muslim women in some conservative societies. It covers the entire head and body, usually including the whole face. Most burkas have mesh fabric across the eyes so that the wearer can see where she is going; others have an opening for the face, but women wear a small scarf across their nose, mouth, and chin so that only their eyes are uncovered.

Although the blue or grey burka is considered a traditional covering, it did not emerge until the 19th century. Prior to that time, women in the region wore other, less restrictive headgear such as the chador. 

Today, the burka is most common in Afghanistan and in Pashtun-dominated areas of Pakistan. To many westerners and some Afghan and Pakistani women, it is a symbol of oppression. However, some women prefer to wear the burka, which provides them with a certain sense of privacy even while they are out in public.

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Central Asian Tahya or Skullcaps - Asian Traditional Hats

Women from Turkmenistan in embroidered skullcaps
Young, unmarried Turkmen women in traditional skullcaps. Veni on Flickr.com

Outside of Afghanistan, most Central Asian women cover their heads in far less voluminous traditional hats or scarves. Across the region, unmarried girls or young women often wear a skullcap or tahya of heavily embroidered cotton over long braids. 

Once they are married, women begin to wear a simple headscarf instead, which is tied at the nape of the neck or knotted at the back of the head. The scarf usually covers most of the hair, but this is more to keep the hair tidy and out of the way than for religious reasons. The particular pattern of the scarf and the way that it is tied reveal a woman's tribal and/or clan identity.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Types of Asian Traditional Headgear or Hats." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/types-of-asian-traditional-headgear-195466. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). Types of Asian Traditional Headgear or Hats. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-asian-traditional-headgear-195466 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Types of Asian Traditional Headgear or Hats." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-asian-traditional-headgear-195466 (accessed January 26, 2021).