BLOG 51 04/08/2017 European Fashion in the Ottoman Empire 1900 to 1922
European Fashion in the Ottoman Empire 1900 to 1922
During the first half of the 20th century, the well-connected, fashion-conscious woman in the Ottoman Empire, particularly Constantinople and Smyrna, were familiar with European fashion and later with American. I often get asked what sort of clothes my protagonists in The Embroiderer would have worn. As the story spans 150 years that’s a lot to write about so I have chosen to break it up into sections. This part covers the period from the first decade of the 20th century until the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the burning of Smyrna in 1922.
When my protagonist, Sophia Laskaris, granddaughter of the eminent embroiderer, Dimitra of Smyrna, set up her couture house, La Maison du L’Orient in 1909 in the Pera district of Constantinople, the city was a thriving place. It was the crossroad between east and west and a place where cultures mixed and merged making it an exciting, vibrant city to live in.
The main thoroughfare was the Grand Rue de Pera which stretched from Taksim Square to the area of Galata with its famous Genoese watchtower – Istiklal Caddesi as it is called today. With its Belle Époque architecture and abundance of fine hotels nearby, the Grand Rue was the place to shop and be seen. The finest department stores were here displaying all the latest goods from Europe, elegant cafes with their ornate mirrors and marble-topped mirrors now provided a meeting place for women to catch up with friends and partake in dainty French patisseries, and Greek and Armenian photographers set up their studios in the decorative arcades or above the grand stores doing a roaring trade photographing families in their latest outfits. All the shop signs were either in French – the lingua Franca of the day – or Greek, Armenian and English, closely followed by German, Russian and Turkish. At any time in the day, a multitude of languages could be heard throughout Pera. It was a period of optimism. No-one knew then that a succession of wars would devastate the good life, yet throughout it all, the fashionable set still kept an eye out for the latest fashions.
The following are examples of the styles the Christian women of the empire would have been wearing and the magazines they followed throughout this period, even until a few days before the fire ravaged the city of Smyrna and the last boat had taken away the refugees.
1900-1909. A new period begins in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turks emerge and the Sultan’s powers are diminished.
1912-13. The Balkan Wars. Sophia’s couture house is forced to cut costs. Many of her foreign clientele cannot reach Constantinople.
1914-18 The Great War. The Ottomans join the war in the side of the Entente. Ottoman troops are led by Liman Von Sanders. Mustafa Kemal becomes the hero of the Dardanelles. Sophia’s couture house barely survives but she makes ends meet by helping the war effort and running soirees and tea dances in her atelier allowing her to keep designing.
1919 Greek troops land in Smyrna and fan out into parts of Anatolia. The Greeks in Smyrna still live a fine life much as they had done for years. The Theatre, tea-parties and a multitude of social engagements meant that the latest fashions were still desirable. The Rue Franque, where Sophia would relocate her Couture House continues to do a brisque trade.
1922 In the Spring, the Turks under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, prepare for a summer offensive. By September, they will have re-taken Smyrna. The Christians are forced to depart the hinterland of Anatolia, the Aegean towns and villages and finally, Smyrna.
We also have to remember that for many, they employed seamstresses and embroiderers and many of the refugees managed to carry their sewing machines with them to make a new living in Greece or elsewhere.
Whilst this blog has focused primarily on the type of clothes the wealthy fashionistas would have been familiar with, it’s also important to acknowledge that most villagers throughout the empire would have been extremely conscientious in their own regional costume and embroidery, many of which survive today.
The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.
You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.