What is the straight dope on turbans?

Are turbans just a fashion accessory, religious headgear, a cultural thing (like the dot some indian women wear on their foreheads), or some combination of the above?

I’ve seen many people wearing them here in the US (where it marks you as different and foreign), so I think it’s more than just a personal affectation.

Obviously, these are (Whatever)-Americans wearing them, rather than natives* (which would just be weird, and fair game for a grilling about it).

*by native, I mean fully acculturated and having parents, at least, that were born and raised here.

Turbans in the present time are worn predominantly by Sikhs. Part of the Sikh religion, which is sort of a warrior religion, is to wear the five K’s -

kesh - long hair
kada - steel bracelet
kirpan - ceremonial knife
kanga- wooden comb
kacha- special underwear

This page has more on it:


The turban is just a convenient handy way to keep the hair neat and clean.

Now interestingly, time was all respectable men wore turbans. My grandfather did not, but his father and grandfather probably did. And to remove a man’s turban forcefully is considered great dishonor.

There are of course Sikhs that cut their hair. We have a special term for them. Where I was growing up it wasn’t a big deal but it can be a big deal.

Please note that in answer to your followup, Sikhs can most certainly be as “native” as anyone here. Even Sikhs born here sometimes take on the trappings of their religion. That doesn’t make them any less American. Also you can convert to Sikhism, so non Indians could also be wearing the turban.

Some Arab and North African cultures also wear turbans, but of a different type to Sikh dastar. There are also other Indian ethnic and religious groups that wear them, like the pheta, worn in Maharastra (at least historically and on special occasions.)


The above responses seem to ignore the turbans commonly work by Muslims, especially prominent Muslims. Is the Muslim head covering (or some of them anyway) also properly called a “turban”? Or is a proper turban distinctly not that?

As far as male Muslims keeping their heads covered, I’ve always assumed the tradition has descended from the Jewish tradition of keeping the head covered. Is this correct?

I was referring to them when I mentioned “some Arab cultures,” though I don’t think a keffiyeh or guthra strictly meets the definition of a turban. As far as I know, turbans are not generally worn by Muslims outside N. Africa, the Arab states and South Asia.

I don’t know as much about turbans on Muslims. It seems to be more like a cultural artifact there, and a class/status symbol. But the men who wear turbans in the States seem to be mostly Sikhs.

Modesty - for both men and women, not just women - is covered in the Q’uran, IIRC (it’s been ages and ages since I read it).

I assume you mean primarily Sikhs and other cultures originally outside of the US. Otherwise, there are women who wear turbans as a fashion accessory. I don’t know if it’s that common now but it used to be.


Turbans are worn by many cultures ( including historically a few eccentric westerners ) and there is no rhyme or reason to it across them. Sikhs for example were mentioned above as a faith where wearing a turban is a religious requirements. In some Muslim cultures certain turban colors had social meaning - for example sayyids ( claimed descendants of Muhammad, of which there are approximately eleventy billion ) in the old Ottoman state wore green turbans, in modern Twelver Shi’a societies they wear black turbans. In other places ( including other Muslim societies ), such colors mean nothing other than sartorial choice.

There are no universal rules or meanings. You have to drill down everywhere you go where people wear them to find different ones.

Women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment sometimes wear turban-like head wraps – lots of sites out there describe different styles.

TriPolar writes:

> . . . Sikhs and other cultures originally outside of the US . . .

All cultures except for Native American/American Indian ones originated outside the U.S. (unless you’re going to define as a culture a modern fashion statement).

Native American cultures originated long before there was a United States. I admit it’s inartful wording, but I don’t think my meaning was lost.

Turbans or pagris were originally worn as a practical form of headgear, to protect the head from the sun. It could also be unwrapped for other uses, like tying a bundle.

Working people in India still use it for practical purposes, like bearers (porters).

The Sikh turban is distinctive in its appearance and usually is of a limited number of solid colors. You can always tell s Sikh turban from any other kind of turban.

In the 1930s-50s, turbans faded in & out as hats, for women.

While I was a student at Defense Language Institute, there was a US Army Staff Sergeant studying there also. He was a caucasian convert to Sikhism and wore the turban, beard, and the other Ks, even when in uniform. This was in the mid-1980s.

Some ethnic groups in the Sahara and the Sahel will wear turbans and turban-like garments, some of which denote status or rank.

A head covering is practical in that climate, and a head wrap is more practical than a simple hat-- it can cover the mouth to protect from dust or shield the eyes if warrented. Veils serve the same purpose for women. High-quality cloth can also be quite expensive, and a turban is a handy way to show off extravagant quantities of it.

The portrayal of Caliphs and one of the wise men, etc. seem to show them with very Sikh-style bulbous turbans.

The ayatollahs or some other clerics seem to wear a more Muslim-looking turban - it looks like the headpiece for an Easter Island statue rather than the traditional/Sikh dome or inverted onion look. The style of wrap too is different - the Sikh-looking turban tends to be interleaved at the front, wrapped alternatingly deeper on one side of the head then the other; the Muslim look seems to be just one continuous circular wrap.

You see a more rough version of the circular wrap in pictures of Taliban and other country people - is this a more an indicator of “country roots”? Is an imam wearing that big flat wrap turban sort of like city slicker dudes wearing cowboy hats to look like they belong out in the countryside?

(Google image for “Ayatollah”)

The “bulbous” or “inverted onion” style you see in depictions of middle easterners is still very visually distinct from a Sikh turban. Nothing worn in the Middle East looks like a Sikg turban.

It almost sounds like a Seinfeld episode: he converted to Sikhism just so he could wear a beard in the army.

Actually, I never saw a Sikh during my time; how do they handle headgear?

The Book of Knowledge:

Sikhs in the United States military