A toque is a hat, but the term is used to refer to several different styles, which can be confusing when no details to differentiate the hat are provided. Generally, a person can figure out which sort is under discussion from the context; a 16th century French nobleman, for example, probably did not wear a chef's hat, while fashionable 18th century women most certainly did not wear knitted beanies.
The name, which is French, first appeared in English in 1505. It probably was borrowed from the Spanish toca, which means “headdress.” The Spanish themselves appear to have picked up the word from the Arabic taqa, which is used to refer to a veil or shawl that covers the head.
In 16th century France, a toque was a hat worn by a nobleman. French noblemen were allowed to wear varying types and numbers of plumes on their hats, depending on their social rank, and these plumes were used as social cues to determine how someone should be addressed. The classic French version was made from velvet, and it had a rolled brim. The style was also adopted by some members of British society.
A toque blanche is a specially designed white pleated hat traditionally worn by chefs, although many drop the “blanche.” Originally, chefs of different ranks wore hats of varying colors; it is believed that white was adopted for sanitary reasons, because it is very easy to bleach. The term “toque” is also used to refer more generally to any sort of small, close fitting hat with no brim, classically worn by women. This type was immensely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries among women of all classes, and it is closely related to the cloche hat, which made a big fashion splash in the 1920s.
The term is also used to refer a knitted hat that is worn straight or with a rolled brim. In Canada, these hats are called “tuques,” probably in a corruption of the spelling. Americans often refer to these hats as beanies. A knitted hat can be a very comfortable garment, especially in cold weather, since the fabric keeps the head of the wearer warm, and the rolled brim can be adjusted to cover the ears so that they do not get too cold.