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In Fashion, what is a Babushka?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 21, 2024
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A babushka is a head scarf that cover a woman’s head and is tied below the chin. The babushka scarf is typically a 3-foot (1-meter) square folded triangularly and tied snugly in a knot or a bow. Commonly worn throughout Eastern Europe by elderly women, the babushka can be any color or pattern and is an effective way to protect hair from the elements or to cover up wet or unkempt hair. Additionally, head scarves can be worn for religious purposes, as fashion statements or for social convention.

In Western culture, the head scarf has become a fashion accessory that also serves the practical purpose of protecting hair from wind, rain, sun and dirt or dust. Scarves can be in patterns and colors bolder than women might wear as clothing but traditional babushka style dictates that the scarf be tied below the chin and not in back of the head.

Many vintage scarves are widely available in secondhand stores and were favored by celebrities from Hollywood’s glamorous past like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn. Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onasis often wore a head scarf with large sunglasses when avoiding photographers. Today wearing a head scarf is likely to attract as much attention as it deflects.

Many faiths including Islam and Christian dominations such as the Mennonites and Amish require women to cover their heads. Catholic nuns traditionally wear a veil. A woman without a head covering is considered to be immodest. The Russian Orthodox Church also obliges women to wear scarves during mass. This is one possible reason why the head scarf is referred to as a babushka — a Russian term for grandmother — in English since so many Russian and Slavic women wear a covering while in church. In some Slavic communities, head scarves are also worn by widows hence the association between an elderly woman and a head covering.

Customary Islamic head coverings vary in length from the hijab or head scarf to the burqa or garment that covers the entire head and body. Different Islamic countries and cultures have adopted different traditions with regard to female head and body coverings. Some countries require a head or body covering by law while others have enacted partial or total bans. In Western culture, the Islamic custom of the hijab or the burqa can be interpreted as oppressive to women or considered a security risk. For these and other reasons, head, face and body coverings are banned in schools and public buildings in some places.

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Discussion Comments
By Sinbad — On Oct 01, 2011

I think babushkas are very pretty and fashionable. There seems to be an endless amount of designs and patterns to babushkas, which can really add a lot to an otherwise drab outfit.

When I was in my first couple years of college, I started to get into wearing babushkas. I tied them in the back though, and normally folded them over quite a bit because I liked part of my hair to still show.

This was obviously just a fashion statement to me, not for any other practical or religious purpose.

By Clairdelune — On Oct 01, 2011

I think that some women back in the 40s and 50s looked very glamorous wearing a babushkas. You had to have a fashion flair in order to pull it off.

At the present time, it doesn't seem to be the fashion. I see very few adult women wearing them. But I see them sometimes on little girls and teen-age girls. They look awfully cute. The colors and patterns are really delightful.

The style seems to be to tie them in the back, unlike the Russian and Slavic women, who tie them in the front.

By Esther11 — On Sep 30, 2011

Women and girls have covered their heads with various scarves, babushkas, bonnets, maid caps, and Muslim type hair coverings for many centuries. For some, the reason was to keep their hair free from dirt and dust. For others, they wanted to cover up their dirty hair when women didn't shampoo very often.

Another reason is to have a fashionable look. And women wore a head covering for religious purposes and to encourage modesty in women when they went out in public.

Women who wear babushkas for practical purposes shouldn't be mocked just because it looks funny to some. Neither should those who wear head coverings because they are required, be mocked .But wearing a covering that covers the face and a long, full dress, should be considered for safety reasons in some situations.

By Azuza — On Sep 29, 2011

@strawCake - Perhaps you find those traditions ridiculous. But everyone has a right to practice their own religion in peace. I try not to judge anyone for their beliefs!

I think it's unfortunate that head scarves attract so much attention these days. I think a Jackie O style head scarf is just so stylish. But these days if you're wearing any kind of head scarf people will think you're a Muslim and possible a terrorist. Now THAT is what I call ridiculous.

By strawCake — On Sep 28, 2011

I find religious traditions requiring women to cover their hair ridiculous at best, and oppressive at worst. I mean, it's just hair. There's really nothing inherently sexy about hair.

I feel like this would be the same as expecting women to cover their nails, because some men find painted or manicured nails attractive. Ridiculous.

Plus, I find it's only a few steps from expecting a women to cover their hair out of modesty to expecting women to completely cover themselves up. It's very easy to dehumanize and mistreat someone if you can't see their face.

By andee — On Sep 28, 2011

My grandparents have a set of babushka nesting dolls that I have always admired.

This set of wooden Russian dolls sits on a shelf in my grandmas kitchen and even as a young girl, I was drawn to them.

Each one of them is a peasant girl in traditional dress. Each with a different dress and expression on her face.

I never really knew much about the history of them or even where they came from until I was older. Each one of these dolls is perfectly sized so it can fit inside another one, but I like to see them all sitting beside each other in a row.

By golf07 — On Sep 27, 2011

For as long as I can remember my mom has worn a scarf to protect her hair from the wind and rain. Although is was not referred to as a babushka, it served a similar purpose.

Once when I was on a trip I visited a shop that sold babushkas. I wanted to buy a babushka for my mom because many of them are so beautiful and colorful.

The material was a little heavier than what she was used to wearing, but she loved the pattern I picked out for her, and it has become one that she wears often.

By Mae82 — On Sep 26, 2011

I remember having to toss on a babushka a few times in college when I was too rushed to style my hair first thing in the morning. The babushka did a great job of hiding my disheveled locks and keeping me on schedule.

There was actually a hair accessory shop near my school that sold the babushkas alongside a variety that had a headband attached to the edge of the scarf. This was fantastic because I found trying the babushka wasn't always the best route as it tended to come undone quite easily. With the headband I didn't have to fight to get the scarf just right. Perhaps it was just me, but folding the scarf perfectly was tough.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 26, 2011

I find it interesting that the babushka scarf to cover your head comes from such modest origins. Though I admit, I always tie my babushka underneath my hair and not under my chin.

For myself, I use a babushka to keep the sun off of my hair in really extreme weather because I find the sun tends to dry my hair out and damage it. I used to rely on spritzing my hair with a special sunscreen, but it just didn't seem to do the job. A babushka scarf can definitely be a cute look, as it comes in so many colors and designs. I suppose it is just a bonus that it is also so practical.

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