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What the Fez?

How a traditional Turkish headdress became part of tiki’s modern iconography.

A primary prerogative of the modern tiki revival has always been the recreation of the past. Devotees of the genre have spent countless collective hours unearthing and deciphering cryptic recipes, reformulating extinct rums and tracking down original 1950s bric-a-brac in the name of restoring the tiki bar to its former midcentury glory. You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that the fez—the traditional Turkish headdress that appears as a recurring motif across tiki mugs, backbars and atop the domes of dedicated bar goers—boasts a historic tie-in to the tiki world, perhaps even to Don the Beachcomber or Trader Vic himself.

“It’s not connected in any way to the original era—stylistically, culturally or anything,” says Martin Cate of the headgear in question. Yet at Smuggler’s Cove, Cate’s award-winning San Francisco tiki bar, the Rumbustion Society—an internal club that promotes rum education—bestows a signature embroidered crimson fez, as well as the title “Guardians of the Cove,” to second tier participants. So how did the fez cross over into tiki’s modern iconography?

The answer goes back only as far as the 1990s, a time when tiki was undergoing an early revival. Josh Agle, a Southern California–based artist better known as Shag, was exhibiting several of his midcentury-inspired paintings at a tiki-themed exhibition in Hollywood, some of which featured Shriners drinking at tiki bars. “Shriner iconography and apparel was a minor fascination for me since the early 1990s,” explains Shag of his interest in the Shriner fez, something the order officially adopted in 1872 in a nod to the fraternity’s Arabian theme. “My very first art show in 1997 featured paintings of both tiki culture and Shriner scenes, but it wasn’t until I did a painting called ‘Two Heavy Drinkers’ in 1998 that I decided to combine my two interests and feature Shriners in a tiki bar,” he says. Shag’s crossover with the tiki world only increased when he began designing collectible tiki mugs in the early 2000s.

While “Two Heavy Drinkers” is a fictional depiction (“Both Shriners and tiki were associated with drinking, so it seems like a natural fit,” says Shag), Cate notes that it’s more than plausible that Shriners, among other secret society members, drank at tiki bars, citing the proliferation of both society culture and tiki culture in midcentury America. “One thing we do know is in the 1950s, fraternal organizations and secret societies were a lot more popular and a lot more common than they are now,” he explains. “Whether you were a Lion, an Elk or a Freemason or a Shriner—whatever it was, chances are you had cocktails at a tiki bar.”

At Smuggler’s Cove, Cate adopted the headdress for his Rumbustion Society simply as part of the “gamification of the concept,” which involves bestowing tokens on guests after reaching certain checkpoints in their rum-drinking journey. It’s a prime example of how the felt headdress—which sits at the center of a Venn diagram of secret societies, role-playing and tiki—has become a sort of shorthand for a large swath of fantasy culture. To underscore this point, at Fez-o-rama, a specialty online retailer of bespoke fezes, popular designs include an icosahedron, a twenty-sided die associated with role-playing games, and a purple-and-copper-colored dragon from Dungeons & Dragons, described as the “perfect fez for your next dungeon campaign.” When the Fraternal Order of Moai was founded in 2005 as a social club for tiki fanatics, with chapters across the country, naturally they commissioned a distinctive fez for senior members.

Tiki’s adoption of the fez as a leitmotif in its modern iconography might seem, at first glance, entirely random—a conflation of concurrent trends that have little in common other than sharing an era and an inquisitive painter in the 1990s. But on closer inspection, the fez—a symbol of tradition, luxury and the exotic—fits. It is, in some ways, the perfect emblem for the genre, which has fantasy baked into its core, and which has long drawn on the visual identities of other cultures to further its own fantastical vision. Even drinking through a tiki menu feels like a choose-your-own-adventure game in which users must navigate the hazardous world of the Ankle Breaker, the Shark’s Tooth and the Zombie. With each successive order, you’re buying deeper into the fantasy. A few more Scorpions and you, too, might become befezzed.

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