19th-Century Women’s Fashion: Diversity and Personal Experience in the Ottoman Empire

Meara McClusky  


“A Street in Beyoglu”1 captures a slice of 19th-century Ottoman fashion. The image, published by Abdullah Frères, an Ottoman photography studio run by three brothers of Armenian descent, shows a street scene in the European district of Istanbul. The photo was taken between 1880 -1893 and is captioned in both French and Ottoman Turkish, reflecting a European influence on Ottoman media. 

In the image, passers-by are seen walking down the cobbled street, dressed in everyday fashions common for inhabitants of an upper-class neighborhood. Three men are pictured in the bottom-right corner, wearing a fez and Western-style frock coat, courtesy of Mahmud II’s sartorial reforms; one of the men is wearing a loose-fitting Ottoman trouser, most likely the salvar. There are multiple women shown in the photograph, wearing trailing European-style dresses with puffed sleeves and tapered waists. 

This photograph presents a stark contrast to traditional Ottoman fashion. In the 19th– century, Ottoman fashion underwent a transformation; under Mahmud II and Abdulhamid II’s reigns, clothing laws governed masculine costume, enforcing a Westernized and homogenized dress code.2 However, women’s clothing was not governed so closely. In short, women’s costume was determined not exclusively by legal codes, but by a variety of factors. Ottoman women chose their garments based on personal experience, regulated by economic class, social norms, and religious and cultural heritage.  

Unlike masculine Ottoman costume, the feminine dress could not be defined in a single outfit– there was no “fez and frock coat” uniform for women to wear. As Europe came in closer contact with the Ottoman Empire, women’s clothing did experience a shift, though it was not uniform. 19th-century Ottoman women’s fashion depended on individual experience within the empire (class, religion, culture), and so cannot be defined in a single costume. 

Traditional Ottoman Fashion 

Before the 1800s, women’s Ottoman fashion had remained unchanged for centuries. Sultan Suleiman (reigned 1520 -1566) implemented the first wide-scale clothing laws in the Ottoman Empire, which would stay in place until the 1720s. These laws pertain mostly to head coverings, a prime symbol of religious and cultural status within the empire; Suleiman determined that different classes, from the sultan down to lower class people,3 had to wear certain head coverings. Dress codes were meant to enforce a “visual hierarchy,” contributing to the clear power structures in the early Ottoman Empire.4 Eventually, Suleiman’s laws fell into standard practice, allowing a general image of Ottoman costume to arise. 

Traditionally, aside from head-coverings, there were few differences in men’s and women’s fashion in the Ottoman Empire. Both costumes consisted of multiple loose-fitting layers tied together with a belt or sash. Clothing styles reflected religious, particularly Islamic, symbols of purity, concealing the body from public view. Differing styles were created not by silhouette but by the texture and pattern of the fabric.5 

Cworn loose and draped over the body; the only shape given was by a belt or sash tied around the waist.6 In fact, wearing tailored European garments would have been “an infringement of the carefully proscribed conventions of the Ottoman court,”7 as Middle Eastern scholar Jennifer Scarce states. 

Ottoman women’s costumes consisted of a few basic elements. The şalvar and gömlek acted as undergarments, forming the base layer of all outfits; the gömlek most closely resembles the Western chemise, while the şalvar was a baggy trouser that, in the modern era, many refer to as “harem pants”. The entari and yelek, a gown and waistcoat respectively, were layered over the undergarments. Alongside a belt and the appropriate head-covering, these garments represented traditional Ottoman dress. However, women were expected to don another layer for public wear; the ferace was a loose-fitting, ankle-length coat that concealed the entire body.8  

Ottoman women traditionally dressed very similarly to one another. While royalty and “trendsetting” class as in the 19th-century. Clothing was functional and relatively homogenous across the state, though religious groups often incorporated different accessories. For example, Muslim women would wear white veils in public. Overall, there was a clear picture of the “Ottoman woman.”  

Clothing Reforms 

The first changes to Ottoman dress codes came at the beginning of the 19th-century under sultan Selim III. He sought to implement Western-style uniforms for his new military troops; this effort had no real lasting impact other than introducing the empire to Western clothing. Years later, sultan Mahmud II would enact the now infamous clothing reform of 1829, forcing male government officials and noblemen to wear a fez and Western-style frock coat. All men except for the clergy were expected to wear a plain fez, while the religious officials were permitted to wrap their fez in a turban.9 

Mahmud II intended to create a homogenous look for the Ottoman Empire: to create one vision of the “Ottoman citizen.” His intent was also to modernize the Ottoman Empire along a Western model, using European-style clothing as a symbol of Ottoman progress. However, he put no reforms in place for women’s dress. Women were exempt from any legal dress codes. He encouraged women citizens to follow European fashions, following the lead of noblewomen. For instance, he and other nobles were painted wearing European fashions, setting a standard for citizens of the empire.10 

While Mahmud II did not explicitly force women of the empire to adopt European dress, he “deliberately encouraged the adoption of European institutions.”11 Women were motivated to investigate new styles aside from the cultural customs they acquired; in other words, they were given a choice over their fashion for the first time in the early 19th century. This choice was, of course, limited mostly to upper-class women. Lower-class women continued to wear their traditional costumes, as they were unable to purchase extraneous clothing items. 

European Influence on Ottoman Costume 

Throughout the first half of the 19th-century, European fashions slowly began to spread into the Ottoman Empire. Such trends were more readily adopted by Greek and Armenian women (compared to Turkish Muslims), who sought a deeper connection to their Christian roots and had closer connections to European trade routes.12 Around 1860, however, Ottoman women began enjoying European fashions in earnest; European trends became commonplace in conjunction with Abdulhamid II’s rise to power in 1876.  

While noblewomen and women in Istanbul embraced many aspects of European dress, older and rural women were more hesitant. One prominent example followed Empress Eugenie of France’s visit to the empire. The Empress was seen as the pinnacle of style and, according to Turkish noblewoman Zayneb Hanim, had “the greatest influence on the lives of Turkish women.” 

Rural women had less access to trade networks with Europe and were often lower class. Their garments were worn almost daily and until the fabric had worn out. As such, most preserved costumes are from upper-class women.13 Only urban, middle to upper-class women were able to purchase extraneous fashions, while provincial women generally wore clothing until they could no longer do so. However, a growing industrial economy meant that cheaper, ready-to-wear garments were put to market; while most rural women could not afford these costumes, the burgeoning middle-class could. Thanks to recent improvements in fabric production in Britain, Ottoman women could purchase dresses from factories rather than buying handmade ones. 

Modern technology like the steamship granted the British and French easier travel into the Ottoman borderlands, a region between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Largely situated on the Mediterranean coast, these port cities functioned as a cultural overlap. Cities like Istanbul, Alexandria, and Beirut were cultural mixing grounds that provided tolerant spaces for interactions between Ottoman and European women.14 

It was in these borderlands that European trends first integrated into the Ottoman Empire. Women travelers, unlike their male counterparts, were granted access to the harem, so Ottoman and European women were able to facilitate a dialogue about costumes. New shops sprouted up along the coast, giving upper and middle-class women access to European-style garments and accessories. Economic changes brought forth by modernization efforts created a middle class within the empire, which gave way to a new consumer culture.15 Women were able to purchase consumer goods, buying pieces they admired and disregarding those they did not. 

By the late 19th-century, European style was in vogue in the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, Ottoman-style garments were taking hold in Britain. Consumers in both states were fascinated by the seemingly “exotic” nature of the other, promoting an exchange of fashions. In particular, British women were fascinated by the Ottoman şalvar, and many British suffragists began wearing trousers as a symbol of resistance.16 Ottoman women were able to pose as  

Publications on Fashion 

The spread of European fashion was aided by print media. Newspapers and photographs became more accessible and spread throughout the empire, particularly in the major cities along the coastline. Journalists wrote about new clothing shops in the borderlands, furthering the influence of European style. Also, women’s magazines became popular during this era: Ottoman women subscribed to French and Ottoman magazines, utilizing French as the lingua franca, which enabled cross-cultural communication.17 

One prevalent example was The Ladies’ Own Gazette, an Ottoman women’s magazine published in 1895. Alongside articles about fashions of European and Muslim women, the magazine published pieces about women’s roles in the social sphere of the Ottoman Empire.18 

Popular media excelled in breaking down barriers between east and west. Photo journals, the most prevalent example of which was the Elbise, were distributed in the Ottoman Empire and Europe. This journal depicted regional costumes across the Ottoman Empire, showing how multi-faceted its people were. The creators of the Elbise printed the photos as phototypes, a cheaper alternative that did not compromise the aesthetic value of the photographs. Print media served as proof of the diversity of Ottoman fashion.19 

Ottoman women adopted certain elements of European style and rejected others; they were “on top of fashions with a sense of propriety.”20 They kept certain traditional features but added new accessories for a fashion-forward look. Most drastic was the advent of tailoring in the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, like never before, women wore garments that fit the contours of the body, relying on silhouette rather than fabric to create different outfits. These garments tapered at the waist and fell to a long, trailing skirt.21 Some retained the modest, high neckline of traditional Ottoman garments while other women opted for a low-cut, square neckline popular in French fashion.22 Women added ruffs around their collars, traded in traditional dark fabrics for soft pastels, and began wearing short overcoats rather than the entari.23 

Records from European travelers in the 19th century often remark on the “gaudy combination” that was Ottoman women’s fashions. Ottoman women wore a variety of styles from both regions and thus were less cohesively European than British and French travelers.  

One British traveler, Julia Pardoe, was invited into sultan Mahmud II’s harem, where his niece Nezip Hanim lived. There she took note of Nezip Hanim’s clothing: “Her costume was an odd admixture of the European and Oriental. She wore trousers of pale blue cotton flowered with yellow; and an antery of light green striped with white and edged with a fringe of pink floss silk; while her jacket, which was the production of a Parisian dressmaker, was of dove-colored satin, thickly wadded, and furnished with a deep cape, and a pair of immense sleeves, fastened at the wrists with diamond studs.”24 Ottomans retained aspects of traditional dress, refusing to become entirely Westernized. 

Traditional Elements 

Traditional Ottoman fashion placed great emphasis on the texture and pattern of the fabric; as such, many garments were decorated with embroidered fabric. Embroidery remained a key feature of fashion throughout the 19th-century, especially in wedding costumes. Wedding garments, no matter the style, were adorned with bindalh, a decorative gold floral design.25 

For example, in 1850, a notable bride (soon-to-be wife of the son of the grand vizier) was recorded wearing a salvar and entari of “scarlet cashmere, heavily and tastefully wrought with gold.”26 Brides wore dark velvet garments with gold bindalh embroidery throughout the 19th and even 20th-century, especially if they came from traditional families.27 

Women continued to wear traditional religious headgear; for example, Muslim women continued to wear veils in public. Depending on class and location, women had differing experiences with fashion. Rural women typically dressed more traditionally, lacking the accessibility to new trends and shops that urban women had. So, while there was a general shift to more Western styles, many women retained their traditional fashions.  

The difference between upper and lower-class women can be demonstrated in a series of photos by Abullah Frères. One depicts female students in private school28 while the other depicts female students at a public middle school,29 both located in Istanbul. The private school girls are wearing dresses which taper in at the waist; the public school girls are depicted wearing multi-layered costumes without any clear silhouette. Both images, though taken at the same time (both between 1880-1893), show a clear disparity in young women’s fashion. The subjects are shown wearing both traditional and European-inspired dress, perhaps reflecting the difference in economic class or cultural heritage. 


Overall, there was no simple view of the Ottoman Empire. One could not point at any woman and claimed she represented the entirety of the empire, as regional, economic, and cultural differences stifled homogeneity.30 As historian David Quataert says, “the Ottoman Empire had no face.”31 

Women’s fashion in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire came down to personal experience, including religious, economic, and cultural background. There was no “consistent Ottoman cultural identity.”32 Despite Mahmud II enforcing the fez and Western-style coat on his male subjects, women’s fashion was not subject to imperial rule. Women’s fashion escaped sartorial law and was instead a matter of one’s identity. It reflected the diversity within the empire: tensions between east and west, religious differences, class disparity, and modernization versus tradition.33 

Increased interactions with Europe, especially in the borderlands, provided a variety of options for costumes. Suddenly, upper-class women within the empire could afford to purchase different styles and fabrics, allowing a shift away from traditional fashion.34 However, it is telling that provincial, lower-class women retained a more complete sense of traditional dress; this shift (and lack thereof) is representative of the multiplicity of the Ottoman Empire. 

This trend is best characterized by photo journals such as the Elbise, a document made as a “cohesive and instructive report on the multiplicity of Ottoman identity and industrial innovation.”35 The Elbise summarizes the growing economy and middle class, as evidenced by its use of phototypes. Its creators photographed hundreds of citizens across the empire, each representing their home region, culture, or religion.36 Most noteworthy, the album does not contain the penultimate “Ottoman portrait,” as no figure represents this. 

In conclusion, Ottoman women’s fashion in the 19th-century reflected the discordant identities within the empire. That is to say, there was no single Ottoman woman that could represent the whole of the population. Rather, personal experience and heritage dictated women’s fashion within the empire. Women’s fashion was both European and Eastern, traditional and modern, and religious and secular.  


Ahmet S. Aktürk. “Fez, Brimmed Hat, and Kum û Destmal: Evolution of Kurdish National  
Identity from the Late Ottoman Empire to Modern Turkey and Syria.” Journal of the  
Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 4, no. 1 (2017): 157–87. 

Burçak, Berrak. “ ‘The question of the corset’: fashion, health and identity in late Ottoman  
history.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2021): 1-21. 

Costume. Sadberk Hanlm Collection, 1359 K. 226. (Photograph courtesy of the Sadberk Hanlm Museum). 

De Gigord, Pierre. Collection of Photographs of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, 1850-1958. Ali Sami, Nikolai Adreomenos, Hippolyte Arnoux, G. Berggren, Felix Bonfils, Ernest de Caranza, Jules Delbet, Roger Fenton, Claude Marie Ferrier. Getty Research Institute. 1958. Collection of photographs. https://worldcat.org/en/title/1079059696 

Exertzoglou, Haris. “The Cultural Uses of Consumption: Negotiating Class, Gender, and Nation in the Ottoman Urban Centers during the 19th Century.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no. 1 (2003): 77–101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3879928

Freres, Abdullah. Students, private school Halile-yi Mahmudiye-yi. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Between 1880 and 1893. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ahii/item/2001696026/ 

Freres, Abdullah. Students, middle school Küçük Mustafa Paşa Rüşdiyesi. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Between 1880 and 1893. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/ahii/item/2001696007/ 

Inal, Onur. “Women’s Fashions in Transition: Ottoman Borderlands and the Anglo-Ottoman  
Exchange of Costumes.” Journal of World History 22, no. 2 (2011): 243–72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23011711

Micklewright, Nancy. “Late-Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Wedding Costumes as Indicators of  
Social Change.” Muqarnas 6 (1989): 161–74. https://doi.org/10.2307/1602288

Nolan, Erin Hyde. “You Are What You Wear: Ottoman Costume Portraits in the Elbise-i Osmaniyye.” Ars Orientalis 47 (2017): 178–209. 

Paine, Carolyn. Tent and Harem: Notes of Oriental Trip. (1853): 63. 

Quataert, Donald. “Clothing Laws, State, and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829.”  
International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, no. 3 (1997): 403–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/164587

Recueil de costumes turcs et de fleurs, vol. 2, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, tentatively dated 1650. 

Scarce, Jennifer. “Principles of Ottoman Turkish Costume.” Costume 22, no. 1 (2018): 13-31.  

Stillman, Yedida K., and Nancy Micklewright. “Costume in the Middle East.” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 26, no. 1 (1992): 13–38.  


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