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What is a Headdress?

Roman Catholic sisters, often called "nuns", wear a headdress called a wimple.
Orthodox Jewish males wear yarmulkes as a symbol of humility.
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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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A headdress is a general term for anything worn on the head. It is usually distinct from hats and helmets, and does not generally serve a functional or protective purpose. Since ancient times, headdresses have been worn by men and women for religious, cultural or fashion-related reasons.

Thousands of years ago, in Ancient Egypt, headdresses were a sign of royalty or high social status. In the famous depictions of King Tut, he is almost always shown wearing the striped headdress only permitted to the pharaoh. Noble women in Ancient Rome also wore diadems or circlets in their elaborate hairstyles. Throughout most of the ancient world, headdresses were used as a status symbol; even the wreath of laurel leaves laid on the head of the winner in the ancient Greek Olympics was a sign of his prowess. The tradition of status-related headdresses continues through modern times, with the use of traditional or ceremonial crowns to denote kings and queens.

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Many religions proscribe specific rules on headdresses, for modesty or to show humility. The wimple worn by many orders of nuns is a religiously significant headdress, as are the yarmulkes worn by men in the Jewish tradition. In some traditions of Islamic religion, women and some men wear a traditional headdress and veil called the hijab. Many religions have rules about when a headdress should and should not be worn. For instance, in most Christian churches, men are not supposed to wear hats or headdresses indoors, but women are allowed to do so.

Headdresses often have a mixed religious and fashionable purpose in weddings. The bridal veil is popular in many cultures, although in Western society it is most often used as a purely fashionable addition to the wedding outfit. Until the 19th century, most Japanese brides wore the wataboshi, an elaborate hood that would conceal their faces to all but their groom. Traditionally, wedding veils were meant as a ward to demons, keeping the bride safe until she was under the full protection of her new husband.

The use of the headdress as a fashion statement developed throughout the middle ages. Although most Western queens would cover their heads or hair for purposes, the more fashionable of the royals would find ways to inject the traditions with some style. Gable hoods, high-pointed hennins and Juliet caps all came and went in fashion trends throughout the 14th-18th centuries. By this time, Western men mostly avoided headdresses, usually relying on wigs for fashion.

From the 17th to 19th centuries in the Western courts, fashionable headdresses became incredibly elaborate, with feathers, flowers, and occasionally live birds adorning elaborately styled hair. With the advent of the Victorian era, styles became more refined. Simultaneously in America, headdresses were used both for fashion and protection from the elements, with a variety of bonnets and caps available for women in the pioneering age.

Today, the headdress has fallen mostly out of fashion in the West, although hats remain popular. Headscarves may be worn to achieve a retro look, or simply to keep hair away from the face, but true headdresses are usually reserved for Halloween costumes or Renaissance fairs.

Japanese brides have mostly abandoned the wataboshi in favor of more Westernized tradition of wedding looks, and even some Islamic traditions have given up the use of the hijab, although in other areas it is proscribed by religious law. Mostly, the world appears done with traditional headdresses, but as with most fashion, it may only be a matter of time before old traditions are brought back into style. With the fondness of fashion for revitalizing old trends, you may be wearing a wimple by the fall fashion season.

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