04 Jan 03 2015 Women’s Costume of the Ottoman Era
Women’s Costume of the Ottoman Era
From The Embroiderer, Part I Chapter 4, Constantinople 1912
“A full moon in a cloudless night sky looked down on Pera that evening, as eminent guests began to fill the reception hall at La Maison du l’Orient. To the music of Puccini, Offenbach, and Tchaikovsky, well-trained waiters offered aperitifs to the guests. This was an evening in the social calendar that the fashionable set of Constantinople looked forward to all year and they knew they would not be disappointed. The guest list was impressive: princesses and pashas’ wives accompanied by their distinguished husbands; Greek shipping magnates; Jewish and Greek bankers; German steel industrialists; Turkish and American tobacco entrepreneurs; English carpet traders; and Azerbaijani oil tycoons. All mixed with foreign dignitaries and painters, writers, and poets of the art world.
Carrying themselves with poise and dignity, the women arrived in beautiful shimmering gowns of satin and silk. Brilliant jewels set in necklaces, pendants, and earrings glinted under chandeliers. Boucheron, Fabergé, Lalique, Cartier and Fontenay. The finest creations from these master jewelers graced the necks of beautiful women. For once, the guest list outshone that of the prestigious Hotel d’Angleterre and the Pera Palas.
As guests moved into the Grand Salon, the magnificence of the occasion became apparent. The air was filled with the fragrance of sweet-smelling tuber roses and elegant consoles were covered with crystal glasses, fine French wines, and champagne bottles in enormous silver bowls filled with ice. And for those for whom alcohol was forbidden, there were goblets of delicately flavored sherbets and chilled fruit juices of every description.
To rapturous applause, Sophia released her first collection. Daring, off-the-shoulder gowns with deep décolletés edged with ribbons of velvet and silk in a palette of watercolor pastels; creamy ivory, mother of pearl; the soft tones of wet pebbles and seashells; the translucent blues of the Aegean; the soft silvery greens of olive leaves as they shimmer in the hot sun. It was an elegant collection, romantic and overwhelmingly feminine.
Anticipation filled the air as the next collection was about to be released. The lights dimmed and a hush descended over the room. The orchestra began to play Rimsky-Korsakov and guests were immediately transported to the fabled palaces and deserts of the world of Scheherazade. One by one a mirage of Eastern beauties stepped into the Grand Salon. There were gasps of delight as these sensuous creatures, looking as if they had stepped out of a Persian miniature, moved gracefully through the room. Gone were the contrived silhouettes, and in their place were flowing silken salvars, fragile gossamer robes, and luxurious gold and silver embroidered kaftans held in place with finely woven sashes and lavishly worked silver belts. But it was the fabrics that gave these clothes their splendor. Extravagantly embroidered silks were layered with floating silk-chiffon and cobweb-thin metallic lace. The opulence was spellbinding. Here were the colors of the spice markets and of rich natural dyes. Perfumed in oils of sandalwood, musk, and Damask rose, their hair tumbling freely down their backs, occasionally twisted with strings of pearls or narrow colored sashes, the women exuded mystery combined with a touch of wild gypsy spirit.
Sophia received a standing ovation that swept over her and she breathed a sigh of relief. Resplendently dressed, her curvaceous figure was wrapped in a finely pleated pale turquoise silk dress, over which she wore a long robe in shades of lapis edged in silver. On her feet, she wore a pair of turquoise velvet slippers made by her grandmother; discreetly embroidered at the back was a tiny crimson silk tulip. In her long black hair, she had carefully positioned a Damask rose. At least one male guest was heard to say, ‘A more beautiful spectacle was never presented to my eyes.’ Thanking everyone present, Sophia conceded that this collection would not have been possible without the high-quality bespoke embroidery produced by Dimitra, Photeini, and their artistic and highly skilled team of embroiderers in Smyrna.
Champagne flowed into the early hours of the morning and Sophia could not have been happier; she had reached the pinnacle of her career.
No-one there that evening could possibly have foreseen this was to be the last great collection ever shown at La Maison du l’Orient. Six months later, Ottoman Turkey was at war.
The fashionable people of the Ottoman Empire adored anything Parisian. It had been this way for decades. Ever since the days of Sultan Abdulmecid I- a lover of all things French – and later, Sultan Abdulaziz’s visit to the World Exhibition in Paris in 1867, Turkish fashions had changed; at first this was with the ladies of the Serail, and later with the wives and daughters of influential pashas and beys. In many ways it was seen as a means of looking forward—a transition phase as the empire tried to shake off its past in order to be accepted into the modern European world. In everything from politics through to the arts, fresh ideas were eagerly taken up by the influential elite of the empire’s three greatest cities: Salonika, Smyrna, and Constantinople. By 1910, the ideology of Ottomanism had more or less collapsed and to hold onto the old values was considered by many as a backwards step.
In fashion, petticoats had long taken the place of baggy salwars and waistcoats. Where once a décolleté would have been scandalous, it was now acceptable and as the décolleté plunged, the Turkish fashion of covering the flesh with a transparent, filmy fabric added extra mystique, shrouding the sensuous curve of the bosom in a mist.
Yet whilst Ottoman Turkey was falling under the influence of European taste, there was an element of European society that looked for inspiration from the east. One man in particular was on the lips of every Parisian: Paul Poiret. In 1910, the Ballets Russe performed Scheherazade. The opening night was a great sensation and Orientalism, which prior to then had been the domain of a select few, notably artists and the aristocracy, was expanding to the wider populace. The following year, Paul Poiret threw a lavish party and named it ‘The Thousand and Second Night.’ All his guests were required to dress in oriental costumes and by all accounts guests had remarked favorably on such exquisite creations, with their luxurious fabrics and attention to detail. Orientalism, as it became known, was something Turkish women had known all their lives but had never put a name to. Dimitra in particular, was the embodiment of everything Poiret’s women aspired to be. Her graceful body had never been restricted by corsets and tight-fitting bodices. For her, loose-fitting salwars—now known as harem pants in Europe— flowing tunics, and velvet slippers were nothing new. She wore them daily and she wore them with panache.”
Ottoman costume with its open-fronted, long-sleeved, ankle-length robe (entari), and over-garment (kaftan), was influenced by the traditions of Central Asia, the Far East and the Islamic countries. The earliest surviving examples of both the entari and the kaftan (alongside the oldest surviving knotted rug discovered to date) were found in the 5th century BC Pazyryk burial mounds in the Altai region of Southern Siberia close to the border of Western Mongolia. The people buried in these tombs were pastoral nomads of the steppe – ancestors of the Turks, who probably originated in Turkmenistan. Early graves and wall paintings in this region also depict similar dress along with baggy trousers gathered at the ankles known as a salwar When these nomads migrated westwards over the centuries, they took their style of dress with them. As the Seljuks and later, the Ottomans, expanded their territory into Europe, they exerted considerable influence in the Balkans, and the Orthodox and Catholic subjects incorporated the fashion into their existing dress culture.
Many Western European artists and travelers made drawings and paintings of costumes on their travels eastwards. The earliest illustrations date back to the 16h century and the artists were usually attached to the retinues of western ambassadors. In 1699, Jean Baptiste Vanmoor arrived in Constantinople with the French Ambassador and made many oil paintings depicting everyday Turkish life. But it was in the 17th century that workshops dedicated to the mass production of costume albums for westerners opened in Constantinople. In the 18th century, two prominent court artists – Levni and Abdullah Buhari – also produced similar albums. Their attention to detail is some of the finest examples of the period.
Unlike Western dress of the same period, Turkish garments sought to make economical use of valuable fabrics and their beauty lay in their vibrant colour schemes, the layering of different fabrics enhanced by exquisite embroidery rather than in their tailoring. The use of pre-embroidered fabric made the garments much heavier than ever. Most of these embroideries were called huseyni and were embroidered in the workshops in the Galata or Tepebasi districts of Constantinople and were known after these districts.
During the Tulip Era in the 18th century, garments became tighter, fitted sleeves became fashionable, whilst the salwar became more voluminous. In a letter written in Edirne on 1 April 1717 to her sister, the Countess of Mar, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the English Ambassador to the Sublime Porte, describes her Turkish habit.
“a pair of drawers, very full that reach to my shoes”, “a smock, of a fine white silk gauze, edged with embroidery that is closed at the neck with a diamond button”, and an entari that she describes as “a waistcoat, made close to the shape, of white and gold damask, with very long sleeves falling back, and fringed with deep gold fringe.” There is much more including fabrics of rich brocade lined with either sable or ermine. To complete this picture of exquisite elegance, she wore shoes “of white kid leather, embroidered with gold.” One can only imagine the beauty of it all.
The same style of dress continued into the 19th century when European thoughts began to have a major influence on Ottoman Turkey. One of the first things to change was sensual, deep oval neckline often portrayed in Orientalist paintings. Within a few years, it would reach the neckline in the Victorian and Edwardian style. Earlier designs were naturalistic and used coloured threads but later, embroidery was valued according to the quantity of precious metal thread and the quality of the workmanship. The entari began to develop high slits in the side or front and was eventually replaced with a single skirt: the fashion conscious Ottoman woman also stopped wearing the salwar. Silk and velvet were the main fabrics used, richly embroidered with raised floral motifs. Towards the end of the 19th century the quality of the embroidery declined as tailoring techniques improved.
At the turn of the 20th century, women in Istanbul and Smyrna began to socialize more; some even went out to work. Edwardian style suits became popular alongside tailored blouses and puffed sleeves, boned and stitched for a close effect. Other accessories included the sash, worn for centuries by both men and women and which not only held up the salwars, but doubled as a pocket for tobacco or a small purse; the ferace – type of street garment resembling a full collarless overcoat worn by women, and the yasmak – a fine gauge veil.
From the 1870’s onwards, the traditional red wedding dress was replaced with pastel shades with gold embroidery; the long trains were decorated with lace, pearls and sequins. Lighter fabrics such as satin, chiffon and European lace were ideal for these softer colours. The fashion for a white wedding dress was started by Sultan Abdulhamid II’s daughter, Naime Sultan in 1898. Leyla Saz, whose memoirs span the middle to late 19th century, was a privileged and regular visitor to the Imperial Palace. She was a guest at the weddings of several Imperial princesses and gives us detailed accounts of the fashions of the day. They are a remarkable insight into an opulent and disappearing world where according to Leyla “It has to be said that if there was one thing that could never be found in the Serail, it would be anything of an ugly sort. The girls who populated the Serail were specimens of every kind of beauty, chosen with the greatest of care,” Indeed, only the very best was suitable for these women.
Which brings us back to the subject of embroidery. In Part IV of The Embroiderer, Eleni returns to Istanbul to discover more about her grandmother’s past. In the Grand Bazaar, a rather dingy and unattractive embroidery shop catches her attention.
“The sign over the doorway, partially hidden by a maroon curtain edged with heavy fringing said:
Handmade Textile Arts
Next to it hung a larger sign in bold gold calligraphy. A third sign simply read:
Private Customers Welcome
Eleni entered the shop and found herself in a tiny room surrounded from floor to ceiling with shelves of neatly folded textiles and embroideries. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked to see a piece of embroidery in the window.
‘It’s a sash isn’t it?’ she asked.
‘The man nodded. One of the finest; you don’t come across these too often nowadays, especially in such good condition as this one. You have a good eye to pick this one. Do you have a particular interest in Ottoman embroideries?’
Eleni went on to tell him she had only recently been made aware of them and wanted to learn more. Selim was only too willing to enlighten her on the subject. She had just over an hour and agreed to accept his offer
‘So you see, he said finally, after comparing a relatively modern napkin with one embroidered almost a hundred years earlier, ‘very few women have this skill anymore. There will always be people willing to weave fine carpets, but this sort of thing… never. Life has changed for women. What you are looking at is a lost art.”
Buy The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci
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.
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