DRESSING THE NATION THE GIRLS' INSTITUTES Rüstem Ertuğ Altınay
AND THE POLITICS OF FASHION IN TURKEY
Turkish Cultural Foundation Fellow (2012-2013)
Ph.D. Candidate, Performance Studies, New York University
The formative years of the Republic of Turkey, following the country's inception in 1923, were marked by a desire to create a modern, secular nation-state with an authentic national essence. In order to facilitate women’s participation in the modernization and nation-building efforts, a new type of public school was established in 1928: the girls’ institutes. Combining the basic post-elementary curriculum with an intensive home economics and vocational education, the institutes aimed to create a new generation of elite women. Adorned with “the scientific knowledge” and “the European taste,” the graduates were expected to transform their families and thereby society. They could also participate in the growing economy as qualified blue collar laborers or as entrepreneurs in the service industry.
At a time when the government embarked on transforming the bodies of the citizens with a series of laws and regulations, fashion was of central importance at every girls’ institute. Operating as fashion schools and haute couture fashion houses, the schools also proposed a national style by combining Western techniques and forms with diverse dress elements collected from within the borders of the nation-state and redefined as “Turkish.” This style, later adopted by generations of haute couture designers, was an attempt to reconcile “Turkish culture” and “European civilization.” An illustrative example of this style would be the sketch depicting a women’s beach suit consisting of a bikini top and mini culottes and children’s beach bibs and shorts, published in the 1942-43 yearbook of Izmir Cumhuriyet Girls’ Institute. Both items were to be made of yemeni (peasant headcoverings) At a time when mixed public beaches were still relatively new, these fashions could mark these spaces as the location of a uniquely Turkish modernity while also guaranteeing the Turkishness of the bodies occupying them.
To present the fashions they developed, to prove their effectiveness in transforming women, and to promote the codes of modern Turkish femininity, the girls’ institutes organized the first major fashion shows in the country in the 1930s. These shows also served as the showcases of the institutes, depicting their power in transforming women. In the mid-1940s, the fashion show was reinvented as a diplomatic genre. The first shows of this kind were organized by the institutes in Ankara and Istanbul in honor of foreign intellectuals and political dignitaries visiting the country. After 1949, the schools started to organize fashion shows abroad. In and through these shows, young Turkish women emerged as modern, secular, emancipated subjects, attesting to the country’s modernity. Featuring prime examples of sartorial handcrafts, the dresses also attested to, or rather participated in the construction of, an authentic and valuable Turkish culture that was compatible with Western civilization and lifestyle. Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the article “The Eyes Have It,” published in South Carolina’s local newspaper The News and Courier on July 11, 1954, their reception could still be informed by Orientalist discourses. Not recognizing the design strategies behind the institute style, the article describes the fashions presented in the shows as “traditional Turkish costumes” and presents an exoticizing genealogy of the eye make-up preferred by one of the models, defining it “as part of the Turkish woman’s gentle art of man-trapping.”
Over the years, the girls’ institutes and the national style they proposed lost their significance for the Turkish fashion industry. Regardless, the fashion show has persisted as a popular diplomatic performance genre. Today, the institutes still represent Turkey around the world, from Bahrain to Australia.
Image 1: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at Adana İsmet Paşa Girls’ Institute, 1937
Image 2: From the 1942-43 yearbook of Izmir Cumhuriyet Girls’ Institute
Image 3: Famed author Sevim Burak in her modelling days, presenting an institute design, 1954
Image 4: From The News and Courier, July 11 1954