Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Ottoman and European Women’s Fashion Exchange in the 19th Century

Brooklyn Wichmann, “Ottoman and European Women’s Fashion Exchange in the 19th Century”

HIST 4405-Modern Middle East
Idaho State University

Brooklyn Wichmann with her handmade garments, illustrating 
19th century European and Ottoman women's fashion.

The clothing a person wears is often judged by others and gives a first impression. With this in mind, clothing based on ethnicity and religious practice is often judged by those on the “outside” as exotic, peculiar, or even monumental. This occurs by both sides of the judgement. The Ottomans and Europe had been trade partners for centuries by the time of the Ottoman’s dissolution; and with trade of material goods comes cultural exchange. A particular aspect of cultural exchange that is often overlooked is the exchange of fashion. European women became fascinated with the Ottoman Empire’s dress as early as the sixteenth century. The fascination continued into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this essay Ottoman and Western women’s fashion during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the cultural influence on one another will be examined.
            European interest in Ottoman women’s clothing was a topic beginning with first contact. Historian Kass McGann states that the height of the fashion for the Ottomans was the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; and that this was the Golden Age of the empire and a great time for women in general.[1] McGann’s Ottoman Turkish Women’s Getting Dressed Guide discusses the distinction between what clothing was for Ottoman women and what has now become costume.[2] Her guide lists what was worn by the women and in what order each piece was worn.  As stated this essay highlights the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but as Historian Jennifer Scarce points out “Women’s fashion did not remain static but continued to evolve at a steady pace . . .[and] changes are seen more in subtlety of detail rather than in drastic innovation of shape and cut.”[3] The primary pieces of clothing for Ottomans were the undershirt (gömlek), underpants (cakşir), trousers (şalvar), coat (kaftan), vest (yelek), interior garment (entari), and a long loose robe (ferace).[4] The importance of these garments was that they were simple in construction; all created using rectangles, triangles, or squares. There was little to no contours that revealed the shape of the body.[5]
 Scarce discusses that while the normal garments of the Ottomans consisted of simple shapes, there are surviving garments from the 1870s that show darts inserted in the waist of the  entari to create the fashionable European shape. In addition, this particular garment had a sloping shoulder seam not seen before, and a cut out armhole. These elements come together to form a more modern westernized dress that clung to the body.[6] Scarce illustrates that the fashion of Ottoman women naturally developed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but in the nineteenth century the European influence was starting to take shape. She continues that the European influence accelerated the pace of change and by the early twentieth century upper class circles had adopted the “smart European dress.”[7] In contrast to Ottoman women, European women’s layers were more conforming to the body. A European woman’s dressing guide lists the following components for women’s dress: chemise, drawers, corset, corset cover, petticoat, understructure, petticoats, bodice, and overskirt.[8] As indicated already, Ottoman women had fewer layers that were far less constricting. The less restrictive qualities of Ottoman clothing could indicate why exoticism developed in Europe.
Examining portraits of Ottoman and European women, helps discern the appeal of each regional style. These portraits of Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (left) and Abdullah Freres (right) show the quintessential fashions of both cultures.[9] These women were chosen because their clothing represents the epitome of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century fashion for their regions and cultures. Tsarina Alexandra is a well-known woman which illustrates European women participated in the public sphere displaying themselves through fashion. The unknown Ottoman woman illustrates that while the photographer may know who she is, society was not allowed to know who she was because women were supposed to remain hidden. The secrecy is evident in the clothing which covers the entire body.
Alexandra’s dress bodice is fitted to the waist with a fuller skirt, which was the style of the late nineteenth century. The gown Tsarina Alexandra wears is also formal court attire for Russia, which adds to the luxury that Europe portrayed to Ottoman women.[11] The unnamed Turkish woman wears a traditional costume of the Ottoman Empire. Since she is outside her home she is wearing the ferace, or oversized covering that was required by Islam. We don’t see what is underneath but the ferace itself illustrates tight-fitting garments were not the norm for the Ottoman Empire. Historian Julia Clancy-Smith discusses the image Ottoman women instilled in the minds of the West. The paintings and photographs of the nineteenth century portray women, Clancy-Smith argues, as exotic beauties hidden away.[12] As shown, the woman does appear hidden away through the veil and folds of fabric.
On the other hand, Alexandra is not hidden away. She exudes the imperialism of the West and the fashion of the times. Historian Onur Inal states that “European dress represented the extrovert character of British women by revealing more of the contours of the body than did the dress of Ottoman women.”[13] The statement reveals appeal of western dress to the Ottomans. It took a strong extrovert woman to wear a low cut, tight fitting bodice; and it took an even stronger woman to carry it well. This is not to say that the Ottoman woman were not strong, quite the contrary. The Ottoman women’s clothing were dictated by “sumptuary regulations based on Islamic Law and social norms, but susceptible to change.”[14] By rejecting the clothing society dictates to them was a direct rejection of cultural norms. In summary, the appeal of each style to its counter-partner was that it was different. It was a rejection of the clothing society dictated to them. In essence, it was a way for women to rebel.
Historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox states: “the Oriental style marked a move from the S-shaped, frail look that dominated the Victorian period, towards a straighter, more comfortable, simpler style that promoted a more sensual ideal of female beauty.”[15] She continues that women’s rights activists were seeking a new look for women in the nineteenth century that would convey their ideals. She illustrates this point by discussing that these activists found that the Middle East was equated with feminine and the West masculine. By utilizing the fashionable Turkish trousers (şalvars) they could achieve their goals. The Turkish trousers were believed to be part of this new look for activists because it gave them comfort and movement but would still be regarded as feminine when using the west’s equation of middle east equals feminine. They would then not be portrayed as trying to be masculine and rebellious but instead embracing their sex and femininity.[16] Fox illustrates a monumental influence the Ottomans had on Western dress. The influence continues through important artists such as Paul Poiret and Leon Bakst.
Historian Christine Ruane discusses in detail the Ottoman influence on Leon Bakst in The Empire’s New Clothes. Leon Bakst was a Russian designer for the Ballet Russes during the late nineteenth century. Ruane states that he took trips to the Middle East to influence his designs. She continues that the hearts of Parisian audiences were stolen with the “Oriental” costume designs. She believes this to be another example of the West’s obsession with the East and its “binary oppositions – masculine/feminine, civilized/barbaric, familiar/exotic, rational/erotic...”[17] These “Oriental” ballets had a dual purpose, Ruane claims; to entertain and to act as intermediary between east and west, because Russia was both Asian and European.[18] The importance of Ottoman influence on Bakst is observed by British photographer Cecil Beaton, as he states it was “a fashion world that had been dominated by corsets, lace, feathers, and pastel shades soon found itself in a city that overnight had become a seraglio of vivid colours, harem skirts, beads, fringes, and voluptuousness.”[19]
Like Bakst, Paul Poiret was another European designer that took heavy influence from Ottoman women. Historian James Laver contends that Poiret used the wave of orientalism to establish a new modern women. Laver describes the scene as a sweeping away of mauves’, corsets, bell skirts and structure. In its place, Turkish trousers and draping gowns became the new norm for elite women.[20] Onur claims: “It is remarkable that at the same time when şalvar and entari became a fashion of high society in Britain, it was simultaneously replaced by European dress among the elite women in the Ottoman Empire.”[21] There is minimal scholarship on who designed what for the Ottoman women, but as Onur points out that foreign tailors and dressmakers took up residence in Istanbul to capitalize on their new audiences.[22] This was not only for the women of the empire but during the early nineteenth century Sultan Muhmud II embarked on reform for modernization that included clothing changes.[23]
Historian Serap Kavas discusses that twentieth-century Turkish Republican elites saw their style of dress as backward and wished to revive it according to modern fashion. He states that his study “investigates the crucial role of physical appearance in the path towards the development of the country.”[24] This modernization included banning the fez and veiling.[25] It is evident from Abdullah Freres’s photograph in the late nineteenth century that veiling continued. Onur also points out that Mahmud II’s reforms did not have any significant impact on women’s clothing.[26] Kavas counters Onur by stating that while there was no legislation dictating dress for women, the women still flocked to adopt western attire. He states this occurred first with the palace elite. There was even talk of adopting the corset, which was an unfamiliar item for the Ottomans. An article printed in an Ottoman newspaper stated: “Given how women dress in the civilized world, we will come to realize that the corset has become an essential component of a dress.”[27] The shift from traditional to western attire is evident in the following two photographs of Ottoman garments.

Westernization did take hold in the Ottoman Empire through clothing. The difference between men and women’s fashion is that women adopted by choice. As mentioned previously, aside from the veil no edicts were passed explicitly stating what women should wear, but there were edicts on men’s dress.
            In this essay Ottoman and Western women’s fashion during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the cultural influence on one another have been examined. There are contradictions in the scholarship on women’s clothing in the Ottoman Empire. These contradictions include that some believed Ottoman women to fully retain their traditional clothing, while others state they quickly abandoned their clothing for European fashions. Written scholarship conflicts on the evolution of garments ,but extant garments similar to those from the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul are definite. Within elite Ottoman society more traditional garments were influenced by western commodities. The same is true for the West. Extant garments from designers like Paul Poiret illustrate the influence of the Ottoman women in Europe. There were some women who wore these designs but as Onur points out they were often reserved for fancy balls and masquerades.[29] Ottoman women in contrast fully embraced the western attire for their everyday attire. The influence was uneven between east and west, and illustrate that Europeans sought to dominate those whom they deemed culturally inferior to them.
Boasson, Frederick and Fritz Eggler, photographers. [Empress Alexandra Feodorovna,
Autographed Photograph], [1908] Image. Retrieved from,
feodorovna/. (Accessed April 05, 2016).
Inal, Onur. "Women's Fashions in Transition: Ottoman Borderlands and the Anglo-Ottoman
Exchange of Costumes." Journal Of World History 22, no. 2 (June 2011): 243-272.
Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2016).
Kavas, Serap. "‘Wardrobe Modernity’: Western Attire as a Tool of Modernization in Turkey."
Middle Eastern Studies 51, no. 4 (July 2015): 515-539. Academic Search Complete,
EBSCOhost (accessed March 10, 2016).
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 5th ed. London: Thames and Hudson
ltd., 2012.
McGann, Kass. Getting Dressed Guide for Ottoman Turkish Women 1520-1683. Reconstructing
History, LLC, 2014. Kindle.
Rabinovitch-Fox, Einav. "[RE]FASHIONING THE NEW WOMAN: Women's Dress, the
Oriental Style, and the Construction of American Feminist Imagery in the 1910s."
Journal Of Women's History 27, no. 2 (Summer2015 2015): 14-36. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 10, 2016).
Ruane, Christine. The Empire’s New Clothes.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Sadberk Hanim Museum, Ottoman Women’s Costumes, Acessed March 15, 2016.
Scarce, Jennifer. Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[1] Kass McGann, Ottoman Turkish Women’s Getting Dressed Guide: 1520-1683 (Reconstructing History LLC, 2014), Kindle, loc 111.
[2]Ibid., loc68. 
[3]Jennifer Scarce, Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East (New York: Routledge, 2003), Kindle, loc 1263.
[4]McGann, loc 136-208.
[5]Scarce, 1698. 
[6]Scarce, loc 1793.
[7]Ibid., 1558. 
[8]A. Bender, “Late 19th & Early 20th Century: The parts of a lady’s outfit in putting-on order,” La Couturiere Parisienne, copyright 1997-2012, . The chemise was similar to the gömlek in that it was usually a simple undershirt; the drawers are similar to the cakşir and were underpants; the corset sculpted the body to the proper shape of the decade; the corset over was usually embroidered or had lace that would show above the bodice; the first petticoat was closer cut to make sure nothing was exposed if the wind kicked up skirts; the understructure could have been a bustle, crinoline, but wasn’t present in the 20th century; more petticoats were added to smooth the shape and add fullness to the skirt; and finally a separate bodice and skirt were put on over top the layers.
[9] Abdullah Frères, photographer. [Turkish Woman, Full Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Front, Holding Parasol and Flowers], [Between and 1900, 1880] Image. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, (Accessed April 04, 2016.)
[10] Frederick Boasson and Fritz Eggler, photographers. [Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, Autographed Photograph], [1908] Image, retrieved from,, (accessed April 05, 2016).
[11]Ruane, 64. 
[12]Ibid., 138-140.
[13]Onur Inal, "Women's Fashions in Transition: Ottoman Borderlands and the Anglo-Ottoman
Exchange of Costumes," Journal Of World History 22, no. 2 (June 2011), Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 25, 2016), 257. 
[14]Ibid., 263.
[15] Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, "[RE]FASHIONING THE NEW WOMAN: Women's Dress, the Oriental Style, and the Construction of American Feminist Imagery in the 1910s," Journal Of Women's History 27, no. 2 (Summer2015 2015): 14-36. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 10, 2016), 15.
[16]Ibid., 17. 
[17]Ruane, 176. 
[18]Ibid., 177. 
[19]Ibid., 178. 
[20] James Laver, Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 5th ed. (London: Thames and Hudson
ltd., 2012), 224.
[21] Onur, 270.
[22]Ibid., 268. 
[23]Ibid., 262. 
[24] Serap Kavas, 516.
[26]Onur, 262. 
[27]Kavas, 523-524. 
[28]  Sadberk Hanim Museum, Ottoman Women’s Costumes, Acessed March 15, 2016.
[29]Onur, 255. 


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