Sümerbank: fashion in modern Turkey
When talking about the textile industry in Turkey, Sümerbank is one of the first producers that come to mind. Superseding the boundaries of clothing, Sümerbank designs often indicate a sense of solidarity and create a yearning for simpler times.

By Işıl İlkter

Photos courtesy of Izmir Economy University Department of Fashion and Textile Design archives.

Active between 1937-2003, Nazilli Sümerbank Textile Factory was founded by Atatürk as a move to create an area of employment and to speed up the transition to industrialization. The factory produced affordable, yet quality fabrics and clothing items for the lower and middle classes. Sümerbank products uniformed the whole nation by creating a common culture. Despite the pre-Republican years where the people were separated by strict clothing laws, clothing now had a new function—the unification of people. The designs and style of the clothing did not exclude any gender or rank. The products were made by people for people.

Sümerbank factories played a significant role in the Turkish industrial revolution. A key figure of the five-year economic plan, the foundation of these factories helped to boost the economy. Producing locally sourced quality product was the aim of Sümerbank institutions and factories. The patriotic taglines for the products were phrases such as “yerli malı, yurdun malı. Herkes onu kullanmalı,” which translates as “the local product is the product of the nation and everybody should use it,” which was used as a national strategy in subsequent years.

Sümerbank factories also functioned as a transforming force during the modernization of Turkey. Around Sümerbank factories, small industrial towns were formed, including residential areas, social, educational, and recreational facilities. Thus, Sümerbank settlements were a center for continuous and interdisciplinary learning where workers attended film screenings, dinner parties, and etiquette classes. A former worker of the Nazilli Textile Factory, İlhan Öden, reminisces about an occasion where a group of workers performed an opera in 1948, an unprecedented event at the time.

A school of fashion

Nazilli Sümerbank Textile Factory also turned into a school where new textile designers were mentored and trained. The fabric they produced was cotton-based, dubbed as pazen (flannel), and it featured minimalist designs or, at times, re-interpretations of traditional patterns. Especially small floral and herbal patterns were extremely popular in womenswear. The pattern inventory also included plaids, Turkish motifs, polka dots, and stripes, which was used extensively in men’s pajamas. To preserve the inventory, İzmir Economy University created an online database for the designs called TUDITA (Turkish Digital Textile Archive).

Also, Sümerbank designs paved the way for many Turkish designers to create their own interpretations inspired by iconic patterns. For example, Cemil İpekçi designed the dress that Arza Akın wore when she was elected Miss World in 2002. The dress was made of red pazen cloth with a floral print that featured roses and some wildflowers. The design gained recognition immediately and won the prize for Best Costume Design.

In the early Republican Era, the Sümerbank products played a significant role in the modernization of the country by combining the modern norms of design with local elements. Although the Sümerbank enterprises were privatized after the 1970s and closed in 2003, Sümerbank designs remain symbolic in Turkish textile history. 

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