the Hennin (Boqta)

Of what do you immediately think when you hear, “princess”? Castles and jewels and thrones? What about clothing? Just about everyone has seen the pointy, cone-shaped hats that princesses (used to) wear – from kids in Halloween costumes to 700 year old paintings – and nothing screams “princess!” quite as loudly.

Princess wearing Hennin (van der Goes)

Princess wearing Hennin (van der Goes)

There’s actually a name for such a hat. It’s called a “hennin,” and what is particularly unusual about it is its source. Despite being commonly worn by early European blue-bloods, the style actually hails from thousands of miles to the east, in Mongolia of all places.

You see, the European hennin is modeled directly after the boqtas worn by Mongol queens. Boqtas were cone-shaped hats that were made of willow and felt, and could reach heights of 7′, which is really impressive when you remember that the Mongols of the 14th century were not particularly tall. And the boqta wasn’t meant to be wholly decorative. In Mongolian society, the genders were traditionally treated more or less equally, and this extended to similar forms of dress (think: unisex Mao suits from later Red China). The boqta, therefore, identified a royal female from a distance.

Marco Polo is said to have brought back at least one boqta from his travels. The Mongol Empire was respected (and feared) in Europe, and it wasn’t long after Polo’s return that pointy headwear became the rage in royal courts. Those westerners tended to wear their hennins further back on the head, at an angle, while Mongols wore them vertically. And, without a good source of peacock feathers, always present on true Mongolian boqtas, the western versions had instead gauzy streamers flowing in the wind at the top as substitutes.

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