April 16, 2020
In 1978, feminist and Congressperson Bella Abzug (D-NY) described her first job: turban-wrapper. According to the Chicago Tribune, Abzug “wrapped and unwrapped turbans” as a model for a Manhattan store and her arms were soon “frozen in a position over her head” from this constant act.
Turban-wrapping emerged as a trend in America as the first large wave of Punjabi immigrants moved to the West Coast in the early 1900s. Though Punjabis faced discrimination and xenophobia — just as earlier Chinese and Japanese immigrants had — the turban not only became a marker for Asian identity in Hollywood but also became a popular fashion item. One could easily wrap the turban stylishly over the head and arrange it in intricate pleats.
In the early 20th century, America’s Punjabi immigrants were usually male and Sikh — and the turban was an important marker of their religion. People commonly referred to these Sikh men — along with other immigrants from South Asia — as “Hindus” in newspapers and public discourse. In 1910, Helen Hays Atwood, a journalist for the St. Louis Star and Times, described the new fashion accessory as the “Hindu turban.” Atwood wrote: “It could be just a plain turban with yards and yards of silk draped round and round it, or it may be more elaborate with feather trimmings or cabochons. Or its draped crown of silk may terminate in points or peaks which remind the observer of a shapely rabbit’s ears.” As late as 1935, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram noted that the Hindu turban continued to be as popular as ever: “They are suited for town wear, and make the perfect dinner wear for those who like to dance.”
The turban soon made its way to the silver screen. The works of English writer Rudyard Kipling (1865-1935) with his East-West dichotomies, the adventure novels of G. A. Henty (1835-1902), Kipling’s contemporary A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948), and the English-born American writer Talbot Mundy (1879-1940) alerted filmmakers in Britain and Hollywood of the “large-scale” and “technicolor” potential of the still-unknown and mysterious Orient. In the 1930s, as British films and eventually Hollywood turned to the East for swashbuckling war themes, the turban became a marker of authenticity — a sign that the roles enacted by the turban-wearing characters were credible and well-researched. Film studios — most based in Los Angeles — began employing South Asians as technical advisors, especially for turban-wrapping. As U.S. political interests started paying more attention to South and Southeast Asia, films set in the “Orient” increasingly depicted the brave, chivalrous West as the savior of a backward, corrupt East. Film studios could also depict the East-West dichotomy to showcase their patriotic credentials as World War II loomed.
Oriental villains were usually turbaned figures dressed in long robes and prone to unusual acts of cruelty. The Drum (1938), for example, was set in Afghanistan with characters who wore turbans. The British film’s Afghan overlord character had cruel ways of punishing his opponents — setting up early stereotypes. Lee Falk’s first Phantom comic in 1936 featured the villain Kabai Singh, the head of the Singh (a common last name among Punjabi immigrants) brotherhood, who lived in the undersea dominion of “Bengali.” Later comics changed this location’s name to Bangalla for the sake of political correctness.