If you ask a generic American “Who wears turbans?” you are most likely to get a response that describes someone unlike the respondee. Maybe the respondee would include a person like herself on the list, but only if she had cancer or faced hair loss. In fact, turbans are currently worn all over the world by people of many different religions. Moreover, turbans have also been a staple garment throughout the history of western fashion, even up to very recent history.
A turban is a length of fabric, twisted around the head. Different fabrics, colors, and styles of wrapping are associated with different cultures, communities, eras, and classes. But at its core, the simplicity of the turban helps to explain why it is so readily found all around the world all through history.
Some of the early examples of turbans being present in western fashion are those worn during the Byzantine Empire. While much of the Byzantine empire covered what we now think of as the Mid-East, at the time of this bust (source), it also covered a large chunk of what is now Europe. In such a large empire, there were certainly regional differences, but the overarching fashion themes were coherent. It is clear that turbans were a fashionable item as they were worn by the wealthy (only a wealthy woman would have had a bust made of her).
Throughout the middle ages, turbans were worn by women with and without money although the quality of the fabric would certainly have differed between the two. The middle ages spanned hundreds of years. There was much variation in what was considered a fashionable head covering over that time span, especially since most women covered their heads through most of that time, but the simplest coverings, like a turban, remained present throughout.
The working class would often wear turbans out of un-dyed fabrics, often linen. Because of their simplicity, turbans made for an inexpensive head covering.
Men and women of more leisure classes would wear turban with more elaborate wrapping and with dyed fabrics. Turbans, and similar large round hats, were particularly popular for women around 1450.
While turbans may not have been fashionable during many periods of history, and so may not have been seen in the wealthy classes, they remain a practical garment and so readily found in working classes. For this reason, turbans are often missing from western costume history texts – the books tend to focus on changes in fashion and in fashion worn by the wealthy.
In the late 1700’s, turbans again became fashionable among the wealthy, especially after Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798. Concordant with the wealth of the wearer, the turbans would have been of fine fabrics and in bright colors. (pen illustrations)
Turbans made an appearance in the early 1900’s as a part of a fashionable woman’s bathing costume, perhaps paired with a matching knee-length cotton dress. (picture source)
Through many decades of the 1900’s, turbans were a fashionable form of hat for the well dressed woman. This example, advertised in a Sears Catalog in 1939, is “A turban that’s a work of art!…Wonderfully easy to wear, because it’s draped the new way, to cover the ears and frame the face. Oriental, rich colors, strikingly contrasted. Luxurious suede-like bagheera (rayon) material.” A wealthier woman would have one made of silk.
In a Sears Catalog of 1940, turbans were “certain to charm” with 8 different styles advertised, most made from rayon and rayon velvets.
In a 1959 Sears Catalog there were advertised another two turbans, less flamboyant and more practical than the previous decade. One of wool and one of mohair and cotton, it is a “simple yet sophisticated headwear.”
Turbans were also seen as daily wear in the 1970’s. Perhaps a wealthy woman would have one made of silk to match her tunic and trousers. A more crafty woman would use this vintage Vogue Patterns 1294 from 1975 to sew her own. (source)
Note: Most of the illustrations I have used come from John Peacock’s The Chronicle of Western Fashion. It is a lovely book that does an excellent job of showing and describing fashion trends for the wealthy and the working classes in incremental steps. Really, I recommend any book by John Peacock. Other sources are annotated in the text.