Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | September 27, 2020
Tradition, Reform and the Westernisation of dress in the Ottoman Empire during the 19th Century.
by Chelsey Lewington
In Part one I looked into the origins of how the prevalent Western Empires utilised Ottoman clothing during the 19th Century . I looked at how the cultural exchange between the Empires was one that was based on “a British and French cultural enterprise” that was ignited by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt . I outlined that this cultural exchange was one based on orientalism; a term popularised by Edward Said’s text of the same name . Orientalism is the way that the west has come to envisage the ‘east’. The concept is based on colonialist thinking and it is drenched in exotic stereotypes and fantastical notions . The West’s love of, and then the eventual ‘othering’ of, the Ottoman’s allowed the west to create an idealised image of dress that still permeates into our culture today . They achieved this by differentiating the Ottomans as ‘Islamic’, ‘Arab’ and ‘Persian’ which allowed the former admirers to refer to the empire as the “sick man of Europe” .
We in the west are led to believe, because of our ethnocentrism (our western Occidental cultural lens), that we are ‘authorial experts’ on dress. An expertise, however, that is usually based on our own cultural experiences and opinions. This is especially prevalent within the post-9/11 world where there are hundreds of debates and articles documenting Middle Eastern fashion, its relationship to ‘western ideals’ and the arguments for and against the wearing of Islamic headdresses .
Most of the common fashion history that I see pertaining to the Middle East documents it in a different way to the West. Instead of looking at dress and tying it into cultural history, it’s heavily focused on looking at the ancient and Crusades era of dress and the fabrics, textiles and embroidery are discussed more than dress itself . This is not to say that books looking at Middle Eastern dress do not exist, but that rather dress itself under the Ottoman Empire is not really discussed.
In this part, I will look into what was happening during the Ottoman Empire at the time and the garments that the men and women were wearing. I will also mention briefly the differences between dress that Middle Eastern women were wearing in order to highlight the ‘othering’ that the Europeans were engaging in. Finally, I will look at the European influences seeping into Middle Eastern dress and the consequences of that going into the 20th and 21st Century.
The Ottoman Empire was a state and caliphate that had territories in North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East from the 15th Century . In the 19th Century, whilst the European Empires were expanding, it was apparent to outsiders that the Ottomans were not as powerful as they once were. They believed that the Empire would fall, however, the biggest question befalling the other powers was who would gain from the Ottoman’s downfall? . The most evident blow which highlighted the weakening power of the Empire was Napoleon’s invasion in 1798 . The Ottomans were also facing competition economically from their European counterparts as a result of the industrial revolution. To catch-up, a restructuring of the manufacturing process occurred. The subsequent growth of the textile industry led to an overall growth in textile production within the domestic market after 1870 .
Restructuring also took place in Constantinople in the guise of institutional reforms. In 1826, Sultan Mahmud II (1808-39) oversaw changes to various foundations with various success. Two major changes included the abolition of the Janissary corps for a new army that was based on a European model and the establishment of foreign ministries . Mahmud II’s son and successor, Sultan Abdulmecid (1839-61) also continued his father’s legacy by establishing a set of various programs and changes that were collectively known as the Tanzimat reforms .
Changes within institutions also led to a transformation in dress which altered dramatically, especially for men, during the 19th Century. The most well-known change to occur came with the creation Mahmud II’s new army, the Asakir-i Mansur-i Muhammediye (victorious Muhammedan soldiers). They were provided with a new uniform which originally consisted of keeping the kuvar and the şalvar . Soldiers were then issued to wear a setre and trousers that resembled the fashionable lines of their European counterparts (see fig. 1 and 2) . There was one change, however, which angered many within the army. The fez was a headdress that was adopted from the previously modernised Egyptian army . Soldiers were so reluctant to abandon the turban that it led to protests which left forty people injured . Despite the resistance the fez became an accepted symbol of reform, as it was eventually worn by most people of all classes and persuasions .
On 3 March 1829, Mahmud II’s desire for dress reforms extended itself to civilians. A decree declared that only the ulema (Muslim scholars) were permitted to keeping the robe, turban and slippers. Ottoman men were obliged to change their headgear into a fez, wear frock-coats, capes, trousers and black leather boots . After the Ottoman court adopted western suits and uniforms, morning traditional Ottoman garments became informal private attire . A consequence of the new dress codes meant that the distinctive and colourful appearances of the Ottoman Court had now been abolished. The dress which delighted Europeans for centuries was now being discontinued in favour of a gradual acceptance of Western fashion. The production of textiles in the Ottoman Empire also helped in the wider acceptance of European dress; by the end of the 19th Century a Western-influenced mass fashion system was in place .
Women’s dress did not go through as much of a drastic change but changes did occur throughout the century. Gloves were worn throughout the century and during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz (1861-76) women typically wore the yashmak. In Adlhamit II’s time, a flimsy white veil was worn but this changed into a thick black one within the century . Typical Ottoman and Egyptian dress was documented extremely well through the paintings of John Frederick Lewis, even though he was an Orientalist painter . In Indoor Gossip (1873) and Lilium Auratum (1871) (fig. 3 and 4), all of these elaborate costumes would have been worn over a set of underwear. Underwear typically consisted of a shirt that was very full, similar to those worn by the men, and it fell to just above the knee. Underwear shirts were made of the same material for both men and women and it came in the colour white. It was made from a variety of materials including: linen, muslin, silk, cotton and a cotton mix . The underwear shirt is similar to the Turkish gömlek. Turkish women would have worn dislik alongside their underwear shirt. Lilium Auratum highlights that Egyptian women would have had their undershirt sleeves edged with gold. Egyptian women would have then worn shintiyan, full voluminous trousers that were very similar in fabric and cut to the Turkish şalvar. Shintiyan’s were extremely long in length which meant that they had to be made with drawstrings, so they could be tied up under the knee. This created a graceful bouffant effect over the wearer’s ankles. They were made in a wide range of materials from light printed cottons and muslins to heavier silks made in the rich colours of violet, blue and pink .
Worn over the shintiyan (typically Egyptian) or şalvar (Turkish) trousers was a robe. The robe was akin to the üçetek which was a long slender robe with a trailing skirt. The sleeves were equally long and had deeply slashed cuffs that fell back over the wrists to reveal the sleeves of the undershirt. It also had slits up the sides that would end at the hip area. There were also shorter jackets that were quite popular. In Egypt, a short jacket known as an anteri could have been worn and in the Ottoman Empire the yelek was a popular alternative to the long robe . Robes were available in a wide range of fabrics including silks such as a lightly coloured one with contrasting stripes in gold to deep colours with embroidered patterns and gold couching . To complete the outfit the waist was then encircled by a shawl-like girdle .
Headdresses predominantly consisted of a foundation cap wrapped with scarves. In the 19th Century, they were smaller and neater in their extravagant proportions. A rectangular white scarf of cotton, embroidered at each end, was usually thrown over the headdress but it was not found in Turkey at that time . The typical hairstyle was based on various long plaits that hanged down the back. They would have been threaded with cords that were attached to little gold ornaments. Kohl and henna embellishments was also generously applied to the face and hands .
In the 19th Century, Europeans started to distastefully refer to Ottoman culture as Persian despite the fact that they were actually a part of the Persian Empire. The main changes to Persian women’s dress came into fruition from the middle of the century. Ladies enjoying an informal tea party would wear full skirts which varied in length from knee to mid-calf. This was now replaced by wide trousers . Before the Shah embarked to Europe, long, loose embroidered trousers were consistent with the old national costume. Ankle-length trousers were also fashionable but their tight fit and light colour meant that they functioned better as undergarments . On his return, however, elements of Persian women’s dress that entered into the royal court were seen as ‘ungraceful’ (fig. 5) . Alongside the trousers, a jewelled brassiere was worn as a scanty decorative item than a functional one . The fashionable jackets were still in the neat tight shape that was established in the first half of the century and were available in two sizes; short (stopping at the waist) and long. The longer length was paired with a full length skirt. The costume was completed with coarse white socks or stockings whilst heads were covered with the chargat .
European women who visited the Persian Empire during the 19th Century detested the way that Persian women were dressed. In 1850 Lady Sheil, the wife of the British Minister of Tehran, bluntly stated after visiting the Persian Shah Nassereddin Shah Qajar’s mother that “I do not admire the costume of the Persian women” . It is quite ironic that European women felt negatively, eventually, to all forms of Middle Eastern dress. Despite the fact that Ottoman dress was worn by women to impress on their husbands fantasies, many affluent women such as Lady Hester Stanhope, Julia Pardoe and Anne Blunt adopted Ottoman dress as a way to express that they too wanted legal property, marital and family rights like Muslim women had at that time .
European influences, especially French, and cultural ideas made its way into minds of the Turkish elite during the Phanariot Period that occurred in the century. These cultural ideas also paved the way for the acceptance and adoption of European dress . Mahmud II’s dress reforms upon the male elite allowed this to occur, as the men would be more tolerant to allow the women of their households to adopt European dress too . Women adopting European dress included the addition of deep frilled collars, machine-made borders of imported lace on undershirts, heavy crimson and purple velvets couched in gold floral designs, tight-waisted bodices and trailing bell-shaped skirts . Demand was so high that by the latter end of the century, shops offered European fashions to Muslim and non-Muslim clientele. Cultural resistance to the adoption of European fashion and consumer goods came from many Turkish Muslims. This resistance reflected the nationalism that was growing within Muslim and anti-European Turkish communities. This dichotomy around European influences on dress echo the complex economic, political and cultural debates occurring in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century.
Even today debates around Middle Eastern dress continue. One of the most recent and prevalent examples pertains to the exhibition ‘Contemporary Muslim Fashions’ which has drawn criticism in Germany for depicting headdresses, for a disregard to the punishment women receive in Iran for violating dress codes and the standard racist and Islamophobic hate mail . Debates around dress reforms and their acceptance within the Ottoman Empire were an inevitability in the 19th Century. The power of the Empire was weakening whilst the European powers emerged triumphant in the cultural exchanges during the Industrial revolution. The Fashionable elites were more than willing to adopt European dress in the name of reform but even this relationship would turn sour by the start of the 20th Century. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and the countries which made up the Empire are still to this day left questioning their national identity and its relationship to religion and the west. Turkey, who had been at the heart of the Empire, decided to implement their own dress reforms which included banning the fez in 1925 . The fez, a controversial item that came to symbolise reform, took on a new identity as a reminder of a painful past. It symbolised that the reforming and westernisation of Ottoman dress led to the death of the colourful and distinctive garments which made the Ottomans who they were.
Glossary of Terms:
- Anteri – Also referred to as a yelek, it is a short jacket that was fashionable in Egypt during the 19th Century.
- Chargat– a triangular shawl that was draped over the head and fastened under the chin so the three points could be evenly distributed around the back and chest.
- Dislik – Underpants.
- Gömlek – The Ottoman equivalent of a chemise.
- Kuvar - A male headdress made of fabric knitted with white cotton thread that is wrapped in a turban.
- şalvar - Baggy drop-crotch Turkish trousers that were worn by men and women.
- Setre - An old-fashioned form of a European coat.
- Shintiyan – Similar to the şalvar, they are loose trousers or drawers worn particularly by women.
- Üçetek – A robe with three panels.
- Ulema – Muslim scholars that are recognised as having specialist knowledge of Islamic law and theology.
- Yashmak - A Turkish veil or niqab worn by some Muslim women that covers the face, but not the eyes.
- Yelek – The sleeveless and collarless garment is the bodice or waistcoat for Ottoman dress.
 Lewington, Chelsey (2020) ‘Orientalism, Exoticism and Culture Exchange in 19th Century Western Dress Part I’, The Costume Society, 18 May, available at: <http://costumesociety.org.uk/blog/post/orientalism-exoticism-and-the-cultural-exchange-in-19th-century-western-dre> (Accessed 2nd June 2020.)
 Said, E. (1978, this edn. 2019) Orientalism Reissued Penguin Classics edn. London: Penguin, p.4.  Ibid, pg. 1-5.  Ibid, pg. 4.  Jirousek, C. and Catterall, S. (2019) Ottoman Dress and Design in the West 1st edn. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press, pg. 196.  Ibid, pg. 196.
 One example I found was Bock, P. (2019) ‘How a New Headscarf Row has Ignited French Divisions over Islam and Secularism’, New Statesman, 15th October, available at: <https://www.newstatesman.com/world/europe/2019/10/how-new-headscarf-row-has-reignited-french-divisions-over-islam-and-secularism> [accessed 3rd June 2020.]  See for example, Suleman, F. (2017) Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life, United Kingdom, London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. And Balfour-Paul, (2011) Indigo: From Mummies to Blue Jeans, United Kingdom: London, British Museum Press.  Rose, C. and Petzen, B.,  15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire Part I, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-26-history-of-the-ottoman-empire-part-i/> [re-accessed 9th March 2020.]  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 193.  Ibid  Ibid, pg. 195.  Ibid, pg. 194.  Ibid  Lindisfarne-Tapper, N. and Ingham, B., (1997) Language of Dress in the Middle East 1st edn. United Kingdom, Surrey: Curzon Press, pg. 153. Şalvar reference from Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 226.  Ibid, pg. 153.  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 191.  Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham, Language of Dress in the Middle East, pg. 153.  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 191.  Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham, Language of Dress in the Middle East, pg. 153.  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 211.  Ibid, pg. 192.  Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham, Language of Dress in the Middle East, pg. 155.  Scarce, J. (2003) Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East, 1st edn. United Kingdom, London: Routledge Curzon, pg. 126.  Ibid, pg. 127.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid, pg. 128.  Ibid.  Ibid, p. 170.  Ibid.  Ibid, p. 171.  Ibid, p. 172.  Ibid, p. 171.  Ibid, p. 168.  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 202-204.  Scarce, J., Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East, p. 111-112.  Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 212-213.  Scarce, J., Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East, p. 182.  Binder, A. and Grenier, E. (2019) ‘Muslim Fashion for Women Exhibition Stirs Controversy in Germany’, DW, 3rd April, Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/muslim-fashion-for-women-exhibition-stirs-controversy-in-germany/a-45601007> [Re-accessed on 12th June 2020.]  Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham, Language of Dress in the Middle East, pg. 173.
1. Binder, A. and Grenier, E. (2019) ‘Muslim Fashion for Women Exhibition Stirs Controversy in Germany’, DW, 3rd April, Available at: <https://www.dw.com/en/muslim-fashion-for-women-exhibition-stirs-controversy-in-germany/a-45601007> [Re-accessed on 12th June 2020]
2. Jirousek, C. and Catterall, S. (2019) Ottoman Dress and Design in the West 1st edn. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press
3. Lewington, Chelsey (2020) ‘Orientalism, Exoticism and Culture Exchange in 19th Century Western Dress Part I’, The Costume Society, 18 May, available at: <http://costumesociety.org.uk/blog/post/orientalism-exoticism-and-the-cultural-exchange-in-19th-century-western-dre> (Accessed 2nd June 2020)
4. Lindisfarne-Tapper, N. and Ingham, B., (1997) Language of Dress in the Middle East 1st edn. United Kingdom, Surrey: Curzon Press
5. Rose, C. and Petzen, B.,  15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire Part I, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-26-history-of-the-ottoman-empire-part-i/> [re-accessed 9th March 2020]
6. Said, E. (1978, this edn. 2019) Orientalism Reissued Penguin Classics edn. London: Penguin
7. Scarce, J. (2003) Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East, 1st edn. United Kingdom, London: Routledge Curzon
1. Lewington, Chelsey (2020) ‘Orientalism, Exoticism and Culture Exchange in 19th Century Western Dress Part I’, The Costume Society, 18 May, available at: <http://costumesociety.org.uk/blog/post/orientalism-exoticism-and-the-cultural-exchange-in-19th-century-western-dre> (Accessed 2nd June 2020)
2. Scarce, J. (2003) Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East, 1st edn. United Kingdom, London: Routledge Curzon
- 1. Mahmud II before dress reform. Unknown Artist, Mahmud II, Istanbul, Topkapi Palace Museum Directories. This portrait is not dated, howeve
- 2. Mahmud II’s uniform post-reforms. Henri Guillaume Schlesinger, Mahmud II, Ottoman Sultan in 1808, 1839 (most paintings of Mahmud II are d
- 3. John Frederick Lewis, Indoor Gossip, 1873, Oil Painting. The Whitworth, University of Manchester.
- 4. John Frederick Lewis, Lilium Auratum, 1871, Oil on Canvas. Birmingham Museums.
- 5. Persian Ladies around a samovar. Isma’il Jala’ir, Oil Painting, Persia, c.1865.