Felt Crowns

The history of Arabic fez hats is quite extensive, and serious, too, despite how comical a red, cylindrical felt hat with a long black tassel looks atop the neatly parted hair and distinctly Caucasian face of Matt Rowe, the director of the Reitz Home Museum. But the history and culture behind the hats is part of what fascinates Rowe, who hopes to expand his collection of 12 and explore opportunities to showcase them to the public.

For Rowe, there’s no great personal significance in his Shriners fezzes. “I first saw one about 15 years ago at an antiques store,” he says. He bought it because he “just thought it was really neat.” Still, over the years, he grew more attracted to the meanings of the hats, and the first fez he bought, of the Zorah Shriners in Terre Haute, Ind., remains his favorite.

Rowe’s collection ranges from Evansville to the Al Malaikah Shriners in Los Angeles, and includes hats he purchased himself or was given by friends whose relatives belonged to Shriners orders. In addition, Rowe owns a number of small Arabic figurines and Shriners cocktail glasses, which are perfect for entertaining guests. On more than one occasion, he has livened up a house party by handing out his fezzes for guests to wear.

Adorning each fez is the Shriners’ emblem: two crescent claws, a star, and a sphinx hanging from a scimitar. The emblem, along with the various decorations that can be attached to the fezzes and their tassels, fascinates Rowe, who graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a degree in art history. He finds himself drawn to the Arabic iconography, which tends to be more ornate as the fez’s wearer advances in his Shriners order through contributions.

Rowe has experienced first hand the seriousness of the international fraternity. Upon wearing one of his fezzes to dinner at the House of Como, he unwittingly offended several people in the restaurant. Certainly, Rowe meant no disrespect toward Shriners. Fezzes are “very unique, especially high-ranking hats,” he says. “It’s like wearing a crown. I’d like to think that I treat them respectfully.”

What can take Rowe’s collection to the next level? “I’d like to get a potentate fez,” he says. “They are much more ornate.” He’d also like a fez from the Aloha Shriners order in Hawaii, with the word “Aloha” in rhinestones across the front, and he wants to travel to Morocco (believed to be the birthplace of the fez). In addition, he expressed a desire to his friend Kristie Bondy to start a “fez museum” in her East Side vintage clothing and memorabilia shop, AbyssCo. It never got off the ground, but “maybe someday,” he says, “when we have more time to dedicate to it."

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