Top of the crop: Learn more about headdresses in Kazakh culture

The headdress is a part of the Kazakh traditional dress and holds a special place in its culture. It comes in various shapes and sizes, each with its own unique social and cultural significance – as well as some interesting myths.

Saukele

The Saukele is a tall, ornate, handmade bridal headdress that is a key symbol of Kazakh culture. It is usually embellished with precious metals and stones, such as gold, silver sapphires, pearls and emerald. This explains why it is the most expensive piece of bridal wear – sometimes costing as much as a herd of 100 horses. It is believed that the owl feathers used to decorate the top of the conical Saukele drives away evil spirits. Some of the fabrics used to make the headdress are red in colour, a symbol of fertility.

Like all Kazakh headgear, the Saukele is seen as sacred. It symbolises the start beginning of a woman’s new life and is  seen as the crown of the Kazakh bride. Some Saukele even reach a height of 70cm, as it is believed that the higher the Saukele, the more respect the bride shows for the groom’s family. It is usually worn for about a year after marriage and used again only on important occasions.

Kalpak

Made of felt from white sheep, the Kalpak is popular among Kazakh men. From the materials that are used to its intricate stitching, every component symbolises something meaningful. For instance, the intersection of the stitches on top represent sun and life, while the yarn tassel on the right of the crossing symbolises prosperity and happiness. 

Age is no secret when you have your Kalpak on. When a boy is 12 years old, he would wear a Kalpak with green embroidery, which changes to blue when he is 24, brown at 36, beige at 48 and black at 60.

The Kalpak is worn on important events such as weddings, family holidays, and funerals. It is also given by hosts to valued visitors during festivities to convey their sincerity and hospitality. This traditional hat is treated with a lot of respect – it is a big no-no to toss it onto the ground or put it next to shoes. 

Generally, Kazakhs take a cautious and reverent attitude with their headgear, They do not wear the hats of others or give their own, as doing so is believed to transfer misfortune and illness and can cause one to lose happiness and luck. In fact, removing a hat from someone else’s head was considered an insult. 

Kazakhs rarely remove their headgear in public and even when they do, the important accessory has to be placed somewhere above the head or in a safe place. If it was found on the floor or on a seat, it is said that the health and well-being of its owner could be affected.

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