Hats Off to the Fez
The red conical hat with a black tassel is very familiar sight for many movie and television fans. Characters and extras in movies set in Egypt like The Mummy and Raiders of the Lost Ark are often seen wearing them, and Doctor Who’s 11th Doctor has an affinity for a good fez as well. But beyond their iconic shape, most people don’t anything of the fascinating history they represent.
Fezzes actually started out as part of Ottoman military uniforms in 1826, and later were mandated dress for civil servants as well. In an attempt to modernize his country in 1829, Sultan Muhmad II banned the wearing of turbans which lead to the widespread adoption of fezzes, especially by Muslims who must cover their heads as part of their religious practices. The materials used and method of wrapping a turban carry great social significance and can act as a way to denote wealth, so by moving people towards wearing fezzes instead, the Sultan was promoting a more egalitarian mode of dress.
Nowadays, fezzes you see are always red and probably have a black tassel. But when they were first created there was a much larger degree of variation in color and shape. Originally, fezzes were wrapped with cloth and were some combination of red, white and black, but eventually settled on a rich, dark red. When synthetic red dyes were invented in the late 19th century, production of fezzes shifted to factories of the Czech Republic, which was under the rule of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary at the time.
The relationship between Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottomans was a shaky truce between three states that all wanted control of the Balkan region in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877-78. The Congress of Berlin in 1881 brought them to the table with Italy, Britain and Germany to divvy up the spoils. The influx of cheap goods from Europe, like the fez, was already undercutting the Ottoman economy, so when Austria-Hungary announced their annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 (which the Ottomans controlled on a technicality), they couldn’t let it stand. This transgression resulted in a boycott of all Austrian goods and was known as The Fez Boycott.