As we all know, history is written by victors. Accordingly, it is not really surprising that when it comes to the history of Europe, there is also a lot of cherry picking involved regarding which story is told and how it is told. As Horoz’ (2013) sharp-witted remark about the portrayal of cultural interactions between (Christian) Europe and the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire asserts: We “need to deconstruct false notions of Ottomans as ‘the marauding barbarians at the gate’, which has for too long been the prominent narrative in Eurocentric historiography, in order to show a more objective perspective of an empire which was established, organised and the most religiously-tolerant power of its time.” While this article revisits the shared history of Europe and the Ottoman Empire throughout time, our journey continues with a special focus: the interaction between women, fashion, and politics.
As was discussed in the previous article, relations between the European continent and the Ottoman Empire started in the late 16th century (Inal, 2011, p. 244). Meanwhile, Ottoman fashion started to become so popular in Europe during that century that the infamous Henry VIII once dressed as a sultan at a masquerade ball in 1547 (Jirousek, 2005, p. 240). Following the demand of European elites for Ottoman dresses, theaters would also play a vital role in satisfying this demand in the course of the 17th century by using Ottoman costumes for their theatrical productions (Inal, 2011, p. 251). One century later, “Turkish themes in literature, theatre, culture, interior decoration, painting, and costume became widely current, first in Paris and then throughout the rest of Europe” (Baines, 1981, p. 162). But what sparked this fascination with Eastern fashion and what consequences did this import have?
It shouldn’t come to a surprise that it was mostly European women who were fascinated by the foreign fabrics and styles of Ottoman fashion. Although history books are almost exclusively concerned with how individual men shaped the politics, culture, and values – in other words, the history – of society, the following examples demonstrate just how wrong this starting point is. One key figure in the interchange of fashion between British and Ottoman women was Lady Montagu (1689-1762), the wife of a British ambassador and one of the first border-crossing women (ibid.). Contrary to common framing, the historical importance of Lady Montagu is not restricted to the fact that with her “Ottoman dress for the first time left Constantinople […] and reached the English Channel” (ibid., p. 254). Instead, it was not the fashion but the positive cultural values she experienced and admired the most. Wait a minute, how is it possible that a Western woman would advertise the values of a place where women are confined into the harems of their husbands as sexual objects? Guess what, this orientalist picture, which somehow managed to survive until this very day, was precisely what Lady Montagu wanted to rectify more than 300 years ago; she even wrote entire books “to correct the writings of fantasy-inspired male writers” (ibid., p. 253). Yes, social encounters between British and Muslim women mostly took place in harems; but harems were not rooms with red satin on the walls and naked or half-naked women in them, belly-dancing while waiting to please men. Quite the opposite was the case: a harem was the private domain of Muslim women – much like the cover of this article – where “a Turkish husband that sees a pair of slippers at the door of his harem must not enter.” (Craven, 1789, p. 205). One can only imagine how idea of a closed-off room filled with ‘mysterious’ women must have spurred the imagination of men and created all kinds of sexual fantasies.
Looking at the historical context from this perspective helps to explain how Ottoman dresses were a physical materialization of the positive cultural values Western women experienced and admired. Lady Montagu spent a lot of time with Hafize (Hafsa) Sultan, the wife of the deposed sultan Mustafa who introduced her directly and indirectly to the culture and norms of the Ottoman Empire at the time (Inal, 2011, p. 252). As a result of this and other interactions with Muslim women, in her letters to England Lady Montagu “particularly mentioned Ottoman women’s rights of inheritance and protection by her husband that went far beyond the rights of European women”, which “came to be symbolized by Ottoman women’s dress, especially by şalvar, a voluminous undergarment in white fabric shaped like what are called today ‘harem pants’” (ibid.). Traditionally, with the restriction of women to wear dresses also comes a practical restriction in their movement and ability to be proactive (Harris et al., 1983); so pants literally freed women. By passing on the knowledge she acquired from Hafsa Sultan as well as the actual pants and modest garments for women, Lady Montagu actively supported and impacted the feminist movement in Britain with the dignity and rights of Muslim women that were reflected by Ottoman fashion (ibid.).
It is not a coincidence that the numerous accounts made by women about the Middle East – as with any topic – have been ignored time and time again while those written by the phantasies of men are still circulating today. As the example of Ottoman fashion demonstrates, women from different eras and different backgrounds were able to use their own means to create agency for themselves. Today, Europe is a trailblazer for women’s rights and the respect for other cultures; but let’s not forget the real, individual stories behind this success.
Next up: Not all forgotten stories can be found in the past; in fact, the stories that perhaps need a counter-narrative the most are the ones that are happening right under our noses. The next article will discuss such current issues; stay tuned!
By Cindy Langer, Editor in Chief of the European Student Think Tank – EST Board of 2017-18.
- Baines, B. (1981). Fashion Revivals: From the Elizabethan Age to the Present Day. London: Batsford; New York: Drama Book Specialists, p. 162.
- Craven, E. (1789). A Journey through the Crimea to Constantinople. Dublin, p. 205.
- Harris, M. et al. (1983). Clothing: Communication, compliance, and choice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 13(1), pp. 88-97.
- Horoz, T. (2013). The Ottomans: Europe’s Forgotten History. Retrieved from http://www.the-platform.org.uk/2013/10/13/the-ottomans-europes-forgotten-history/
- Inal, O. (2011). Women’s Fashions in Transition: Ottoman Borderlands and the Anglo-Ottoman Exchange of Costumes. Journal of World History, 22(2), 243-272.
- Jirousek, C. (2005). Ottoman Influences in Western Dress. Ottoman Dress: From Textile to Identity, Istanbul: Eren, p. 240.
- Pardoe, J. (1838). The Beauties of the Bosphorus. London: G. Virtue, p. 127.