Fashion has long been the ultimate indicator of status and identity. For the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, laws ONCE regulated people’s styles from the fifteenth century to the early stages of the Republic. The transformation of clothing laws played an integral role in reflecting and implementing change.

By Işıl İlkter

Photos courtesy of The Grand National Assembly of Turkey, İzmir Economy University, SALT Research, Suna&İnan Kıraç Foundation 

As the anecdote goes, well known by Turks, Nasreddin Hoca attends a dinner in his daily clothes and does not get recognition at all. Upon changing into an expensive fur coat, he is greeted by everyone wholeheartedly. When dinner is served, he feeds his fur coat, shouting “ye kürküm, ye!” which translates as “my coat, you eat, too!” As this bizarre story highlights, clothing has been and still is a marker of social, cultural, and financial status in Turkish society.

For the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, clothing was regulated by the state and the laws changed with each period. The first of the clothing laws were passed after Mehmet II conquered Istanbul. The legislation on clothing specifically defined the dress code for each member of the society to the point that wearing the appropriate attire was a way of realization of one’s identity. For instance, a 1580 decree stated that dark blue and black were exclusive to the non-Muslim whereas yellow and green garments were to be worn by the Muslim population.

Regardless, the style of Ottoman garments was almost the same for all members of society. The typical Ottoman dress consisted of cakşır (trousers), gömlek (shirt), belt, kaftan (a long formal robe), fur coat, plus headgear that differed according to one’s status and occupation. In addition, when going outside, women wore an overcoat called a ferace and covered their head and face with a veil called a yaşmak. These layers were preferred for their functionality for a long time but later, the number and quality of the layers began to signify wealth and higher status.

Illustration from “The Costume of Turkey”

Ottoman fashion peaked during the reign of Suleyman I as the Ottoman Empire was gaining immense economic and political power. High quality fabrics such as brocade, velvet, and cashmere were woven with gold or silver threads and made the most astonishing kaftans for the Sultan. Fabrics from China, India, Italy, and Iran entered the country and there was an immense demand for new clothing. Fearing that the demand for luxury would cause distress amongst the people, the Sultan issued a decree requiring people to continue using traditional forms and to opt for fabrics that are suitable for each respective rank. Thus, clothing fostered a modicum of control to maintain hierarchy and social structure.

Such intricate lines of law did not go by without some resistance. Liberties were taken by the people, starting in the eighteenth century. Although the Ottoman Empire struggled with economic and political stability during the Tulip Period, the court was drawing attention with their glamorous lifestyles. Trade lodges were controlling a reasonable amount of power and a group of men started to wear high quality furs to establish their power. With this emerging middle class extravagance, Abdulhamid I put certain limitations on excessive clothing by requesting more humble attire. In time, fashion also became an economic concern, encouraging Selim III to issue decrees requiring the usage of the local fabric.

Symbol of Change

Clothing symbolized and manifested the shift in society in the Ottoman Empire. During the second half of the reign of Mahmud II, the Ottoman Empire underwent a set of radical changes that deeply shook social life. In 1826, the janissary was dismissed and a new army was formed. With the new army, a new military uniform was introduced, reflecting a Western European style. Regardless of rank, state officials had to wear Istanbulin (a long black jacket and trousers). The ultimate marker of the Ottoman Empire, the fez became the official headgear in this period. A new feshane (fez factory) was founded to hasten the adaptation process. This standardization process created public confusion. Although the law required a simple fez, the social urge to express one’s own identity through clothes remained within this multinational empire. Turkish workers wore the fez with yemeni, a traditional fabric, wrapped around it while Armenian and Kurdish tradesmen opted for other colors.

With the industrial revolution and the advancement of the sewing machine, Turkish dress drifted from its traditional roots. Usually, the new models were taken from European fashion magazines. Later, the fall of the Ottoman Empire with World War I had an immense effect, particularly with women’s clothing. The inclusion of women in social and economic life impacted the clothing rules, and liberties were taken in favor of Western styles.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with artist, 1926, Suna&İnan Kıraç Foundation 

Modern Turkey

With the establishment of the Republic in 1923, Turkey underwent radical changes in every aspect of social life, as well as fashion. European standards were taken as a model for the new outlook for Turkey. To reflect the newly founded democracy, a new set of clothing laws became effective in 1925. Religious clothes like a kavuk (a religious headgear) and an abaya (the full-length gown worn by Muslim women) were prohibited for everyone, except for religious officials. The hat replaced the fez and headscarf.

Another important aspect of the hat and clothing revolution is the change in women’s attire. Women had to cover their bodies with a black abaya or ferace for a long period. However, with the adoption of European style, they were replaced by jackets and coats. Hats took the place of yaşmak. Having the new sartorial reforms played a significant role and increased inclusion of women in the workforce and social sphere. Originally founded in the nineteenth century to prepare military attire, The Girls’ Institute transformed in the Republican Era into a vocational school where the newest fashion styles were reinterpreted with Turkish. Students even traveled to Paris to follow the latest trends. Besides disseminating European fashion, the students promoted the European lifestyle, which was also endorsed by the state.

A nation which was segregated in terms of clothing for centuries, standardized attire for all ranks of society was crucially important for the new democratic regime. This was an attempt to erase the unpopular image of Ottoman attire, which had become a costume representing backwardness. Although everyone did not welcome the change, Atatürk and his supporters continued encouraging the European attire and way of life. Westernization was synonymous with the idea of prosperity for Turkey. In a short matter of time, classes about the Western lifestyle were put into the curriculum. Atatürk even traveled across the country to introduce the hat and new Turkish attire.

After the 1960s, the ready-to-wear clothing industry dominated Turkey. As the Turkish dress was European in form, traditional designs and patterns found a place in this new era of Turkish fashion with enterprises such as Sümerbank Textile Factories. Today, many factors determine Turkish attire. Still, the quality of the fabric and choice of style tell a lot about one’s cultural background, occupation, and religion. One of the unchanging trends, the fusion of Western European and Turkish fashion can be observed in some contemporary designers’ collections like Aslı Filinta, Cemil İpekçi, and Rıfat Özbek.


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