The traditional Ottoman garment is a continuation of that in Central Asia, which was related to that of the Far East. In the course of their westward migrations over the centuries, the Turks carried their traditional culture with them, including clothing, and these customs spread through the regions in which they settled. Local traditions in those regions had a reciprocal influence on Turkish garments, which had been influenced by traditions of Islamic countries and Anatolia.
Visual materials such as ceramics that have survived from the Anatolian Seljuk period, show women whose heads are covered but with unveiled face. Their clothing consists of baggy trousers (şalvar) underneath, a shirt of a loose robe (iç entari) and an outer robe (kaftan) on top of the ensemble. There is insufficient material to elaborate on the Ottoman women of earlier historical eras. Contrary to the reverence accorded to the clothing of deceased sultans, there was no tradition in the Ottoman court of preserving the garments of women, and consequently there are very few items of women’s clothing in the Topkapı Palace collection. However, visual documentation such as manuscripts illustrated with miniatures as well as written sources such as legislation and judgments, illustrated travel diaries, and engravings provide information on this subject. According to Ottoman sources, palace garments for men and women were sewn in the workshops of the palace tailors based on prepared samples.
As with garments of men, so the primary components of women’s dress consisted of baggy trousers (şalvar), a shirt or robe, an inner kaftan, an outer kaftan, and an overcoat (ferace). The şalvar were generally very wide and loose pants that were tied at the waist and dropped very loosely to the feet where the pants either had cuffs or were wrapped around the ankles. A long-sleeved, cream-colored shirt of a type of raw silk crepe known as bürümcük was worn over the şalvar. This extended over the hips or all the way to the heels. The neckline and cuffs of the shirt were often embroidered with colored thread, and the edges embellished with needle lace. The inner kaftan (iç entari), which was usually a solid color and was worn over the shirt, was cut with a U-shaped neckline and long sleeves. The kaftan worn over the inner robes had short sleeves and a deep U décolletage. In winter, it would be lined with fur such as sable, marten, squirrel, or ermine. Both inner and outer kaftans were sewn with the most prevalent fabrics of the era, heavy silks such as brocaded silk (kemha), velvet (kadife), brocaded silk with metallic threads in lampas structure, and clothe of gold and silver (seraser). An overcoat (ferace) was worn by both men and women in the fifteenth century. The women’s ferace, slightly more form fitting than that of men, had loose arms and a skirt reaching down to the heels. Peçe, which were worn widely among Turkish women, can be seen in many miniature paintings dated to the sixteenth century. One may surmise that Turkish women’s fashion had been affected by people who lived in countries on the way to Egypt, and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
From an early period, the old Central Asian Turkic tradition prevailed, not only in the dress but also on women’s headgear. Diadems, whose uninterrupted use has been traced from Central Asia to the Anatolian Seljuks, are mentioned in the Divan-ı Lugat-it Turk, a dictionary of Turkish written in the twelfth century. The kaşbastı, a type of diadem that encircles the head and is embellished with an almond-shaped stone at the center of the forehead, was worn by the women of the palace and later throughout the Ottoman Empire. Kaşbastı were worn by the women of the sultan’s family in their daily life as an indication of their rank. The most beautiful existing examples of this magnificent headgear are the kaşbastı that belonged to Hürrem Sultan and Safiye Sultan. The popularity of the kaşbastı declined in the seventeenth century, when high, blocked headgear with rounded crowns was in vogue, while garments maintained their previous lines. Ornaments worn on the head often expressed the social standing of women. Hence remarkable and ostentatious head ornaments of the lady sultans were often decorated with large and carefully set jewels.
After the fifteenth century, besides kaşbastı, the headgear worn by women showed the variety, including the conical hat with the top part divided into six slices, and a headband (çeki) circling the head. Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, women’s headgear changed to a flat felt hat or fez, never exceeding ten centimeters in height. Wrapped over this, a thin white scarf covered the whole head and dropped to the shoulders, and was fastened under the chin. Travelers note that this scarf occasionally covered the face with a black silk veil. Paintings from the sixteenth century show women wearing a fez over a fine and colored scarf hanging from the back of the head and encircled by a headband. Towards the end of the century, such headgear came to be referred to as the serpuş or terpuş, and was often a violet color and made of çatma velvet. These hats were worn over a scarf that covered the head starting from the forehead. A headband decorated with precious stones circumscribed the lower rim.
An elaborate belt, called cevberi, worn over the inner robe (iç entari) put the final touch on the elegance of the ladies of the palace. These were referred to as “hooked belts” in the court registers. They displayed a rich diversity: the buckle could be in the form of two circles, a rectangular plated polygon or even in the shape of a leaf. Jeweled curved daggers and small embroidered key purses that hung from these belts decorated them further.
Western influence, which began to appear after the seventeenth century, can be seen not only in changes on textile designs, but also in collars, arms, and skirt. Significant changes in the dress of Turkish women occurred during the reign of Ahmed III (1703-1730). In the social sphere, women started to go out; people went to recreation spots in groups, and boat promenades on the Göksü River or in Kağıthane became popular. Women’s participation in the recreational public sphere brought their clothing and adornment under public scrutiny. The ferace, which was a plain outdoors garment, was transformed. The long sleeves of the inner kaftan are let open from wrist to elbow, allowing them to hang freely from the elbow and extend as far as the vents in the two side seams, as reflected in depictions by the renowned miniaturist Abdulcelil Levni in his album dated 1720-1725. Later, it became even more lively with the use of bright and cheerful colors such as green, lilac and blue. It would be embellished with gilded trimmings, laves and ribbons. Headgear also grew considerably and the modes of decoration changed as well. High headgear with crests, covered with a thin white veil would be accompanied by plated silk parasols, the same color as the ferace, with jeweled handgrips.
Lady Montagu, who stayed in Istanbul with family and friends between 1717 and 1718, described the details of her life in Istanbul as well as the Turkish women’s garments that she had sewn herself. She also had her portrait painted in the Turkish clothes she loved so well. In one painting by Jean-Baptiste Vanmour (National Portrait Gallery in London,) Montagu is portrayed wearing an inner robe with a deep décolletage, a jeweled belt, and a fur kaftan, holding the hand of her small child.
It appears that the visibility of women’s faces through the transparent veils and the colors of their ferace discomfited the male population, and in 1725-1726, a judgment was sent from the palace warning women about their clothing. But it would appear from the repetition of the same warning in 1734, that women did not always heed these restrictions.
The extremes in women’s dress and headgear continued into the beginning of the nineteenth century, and women were constantly at odds with the palace. As the headgear increased in size, the judgments issued from the palace increased in severity. For instance, in a judgment sent to the kadı (the chief judge) of Eyüp in 1807, women were forbidden to appear in public in unseemly colors, ferace with long collars, or the headgear of a köçek (the dancing boys who impersonated women, a comparison intended to demean the wearers). Again, in 1811, it was announced that women were not to go about in unseemly colored, long-collared ferace in public and that those who ignored the judgment would have their headgear and collars cut off.
After the 1850s, the interest of the palace ladies in Western goods was increasing, and every type of clothing fabric and accessory was beginning to be ordered from Europe. The consequence of these shopping orders resulted in the issue of large sums of money from the treasury, causing depletion of its funds. A seven-page booklet of fashion plates from Paris, dating to 1873-1874, and which is preserved in the Topkapı Palace archives, is interesting from the viewpoint of the passion of the palace women for Western goods. After 1875, traditional costume lines, which had lasted for four centuries, fell under the dominance of western influence in all fields.
GÖRÜNÜR, Lale, Women’s Costume of the Late Ottoman Era from the Sadberk Hanım Museum Collection. Istanbul: Sadberk Hanım Museum, 2010.
GÜRTUNA, Sevgi, Osmanlı Kadın Giysisi. Ankara: Kültür Bakanlığı, 1999.
MAHIR, Banu, “Eighteenth Century Ottoman Women’s Fashion in the Miniatures of Abdullah Buhari”, P magazine Fashion at the Ottoman Court, Issue 3 (Spring –Summer 2000), pp. 64-75.
TEZCAN, Hülya, “The Topkapı Palace Museum Collection Fashion at the Ottoman Court: I. Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Women’s Fashion at the Ottoman Palace”, P magazine Fashion at the Ottoman Court, Issue 3 (Spring –Summer 2000), pp. 18-29.
Hülya Tezcan, “The Topkapı Palace Museum Collection Fashion at the Ottoman Court: I. Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Women’s Fashion at the Ottoman Palace”, P magazine Fashion at the Ottoman Court, Issue 3 (Spring –Summer 2000), pp. 4-17.
TEZCAN, Hülya, “The Sultanic Costumes in the Attire Collection at the Topkapı Palace Museum, Fashion at the Ottoman Court”, P magazine Fashion at the Ottoman Court, Issue 3 (Spring –Summer 2000), pp. 30-49.
TEZCAN, Hülya, “Imperial Dress Preserved at the Topkapi Museum”, Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion volume 5, Central and Southwest Asia. Oxford University Press, USA, 2010, pp. 139-147.
You can visit the TCF Image Archive on Turkish Art to see more images of Ottoman garments.