A Western album offers a glimpse into outfits of Ottoman times

Palace musician - An Egyptian Arab woman

July 17, 2012, Tuesday/ 18:14:00

An album published for the first time in London in 1802 offers some important clues as to how the Ottomans organized themselves militarily, what their lifestyles were like and how foreigners viewed the Ottoman Empire.

Octavien Dalvimart arrived in Istanbul in 1789, where he was to produce 60 etchings reflecting various aspects of Ottoman lifestyle. In 1802, these etchings were collected in an album called “Costumes of Turkey,” published later in Turkey under the title “Osmanlı Köstümleri.”

The album dates from the era of Sultan Selim III, during a period in which efforts to Westernize Ottoman culture had picked up speed. The 60 etchings are accompanied by explanations in Turkish, English and French. Both the images and the text -- which offers information compiled from a number of different 17th and 18th century travelogues -- are very important. There are all sorts of important clues offered herein, relating not only to the military organization and lifestyle of the Ottomans, but also to foreigners’ perspectives on the culture as a whole. As for those who wonder why it is that such a work would have been done by a foreigner at that time, here is a small clue from a contemporaneous foreword to the album: “We know almost nothing about the Ottoman Empire, other than about the immenseness of its lands, or its geographical positioning. Some writers have believed the results of tired and superficial studies of the Ottomans in the past to be real, and have thus created imaginary ideas about the Ottomans which they thought to be true, offering these ideas up to us about Turkish religion, laws and customs.” So clearly, the goal of this old album was to try to understand the true Ottoman lifestyle. At the same time, however, it is not strictly correct to say that this artist was able to carry out a clear analysis of the time. In many parts of the text, a clearly Orientalist viewpoint emerges and is in fact emphasized.

The work is not only focused on the life and ways of the palace of Selim III. In fact, its spectrum is quite wide, casting light on everyone from the concubines and keepers of the harem to other notables who took their place in the complicated protocols and ways of the sultanate. There are also portraits of members of the learned classes as well as of Ottoman citizens who were Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Bedouin, Bosnian and Albanian. There is a glimpse offered of different ranks of the Janissaries. In short, these sketches and descriptions carry all the pageantry of the Ottoman world into the present day.

The ‘kapıcıbaşı’ at the doorways to the palace

The kapıcıbaşı were Ottoman officers who wore ceremonial clothing made from rich silks, with cuffs and lapels of valuable furs, not to mention plumes on their heads. They were men engaged in particular and distinguished service to the sultans. They were charged with bringing the sultan his bowstrings when he sent orders to do so, and when they walked with these bowstrings in hand they would meet with the utmost respect and fear from those who encountered them.

Palace musician

We often associate Janissary marching bands with the Ottomans, but one must not forget that the palace also had its own musicians. A musician is pictured in this album wearing the traditional outfit of his station. The instrument he is holding, a “tambur,” resembles a “zamane lirine,” or Spanish guitar, though with fewer strings and a longer handle.

A Turkish woman wearing

İstanbul-style clothing

Turkish women were seen on the streets of İstanbul dressed in this style. The “ferace,” a long, coat-like covering worn by Turkish women of the era, was generally made from green broadcloth. The long rectangular headscarf that would swing from their shoulders was made from quilted green silk. The beauty of Turkish, and in particular Circassian or Georgian, women was legendary, though Europeans maintained that their beauty was limited to their faces. It is interesting to note that their toenails and fingernails would be painted a shiny pink; this is supposedly a reference to Homer’s words about the “rosy-fingered dawn.”

Turk wrapped in a shawl

For Turks of higher positions in society, during certain periods, to be seen walking on foot around the streets of the city could cost them their dignity. Therefore, the preferred method of getting from place to place was on horseback. Some richer members of society would make a great show of outings, heading onto the streets accompanied by hundreds of servants, dressed in spectacular outfits. However, what we see in this plate is not in this category; Turks on foot in the city would dress this way.

Officer of the ‘iskemle’

The duty of this Ottoman officer was to escort the sultan on his outings. He was in charge of carrying around the “iskemle,” a small stool to assist the sultan to mount his horse with ease. So much pomp and display went into every act undertaken by the sultan that, as long as he was not in any sort of disguise, there was a constant retinue of people ready to jump to his service, observing the many intricate details of palace protocol.

A Turkish woman in a wedding gown

Here we see a bride wearing a long gown, her hair styled elegantly with flowers, pearls and jewels. In these times, weddings ceremonies could take place only on Thursday nights. On her actual wedding day, the bride would wear her very best outfit, all of her most valuable and precious jewelry. In terms of makeup, a bride would be wearing some blush and foundation, with brows and eyelashes blackened for contrast.

An Egyptian Arab woman

The women of Cairo would always cover their faces and their bodies with black cloth, and the richer the woman, the more generous the covering. The veil that covered the face was the most important aspect of the outfit, and would be the last thing removed by a woman. In Cairo, veils were always black, and always very large. Eastern women would wear shalwar (baggy trousers), and the poorest class of women in Egypt would generally have no outfit besides a blue robe and shalwar.

A Turkish woman from the İstanbul district of Pera

Here we see a Turkish woman from the district of Pera. According to ideas held by Europeans at the time, the beauty of such a woman would be limited only to her face. The foundation for such a belief is interesting: “When you combine their excessive use of hot hamams, their lifestyles and their strange habits of sitting, the elegance of their bodies is quite ruined. The cinches of Greek style they wear around their waists make their bodies appear quite awful.”