Turkish Women’s Love for Fashion & How to Dress in Istanbul

( Copyright Style Du Monde)

This article first appeared on Atdaa- The outspoken Travel Guidebook

When Istanbul’s fashion scene was put on the international calendar back in 2013 with the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Istanbul, fashionistas around the world might have been wondering why as Istanbul or turkish Fashion Design didn’t make its voice heard before. Although Turkey is one of world’s largest textile and garment producers, local fashion brands were hardly known outside of the country and Turkey focused solely on garment production for decades. In the late 90s however, emerging Turkish designer brands like Bahar Korcan, Ümit Ünal and Hakan Yildirim began to internationalize. They took on speed in the 2000s when the Turkish Textile Association intensified support for local design talent, aiming to develop Istanbul as a hub for design and fashion.

The Istanbul fashion landscape in a nutshell

Today local as well as many well known international fashion luxury brands, from Armani to Zegna, can be found in Istanbul. The city boasts a plethora of shopping malls ranging in prices from cheap to top luxury. Istanbul fashionista Ece Sukan is among the most photographed fashion editors at Fashion Weeks all over the world. Istanbul bloggers like Iconjane or Billur Saatci have amassed large international followers on Instagram. Fashion designers like Asli Filinta. Maid in Love, Günseli Türkay, Cashmere in Love and many more are sold internationally and at home. The concept store Midnight Express offers a distinguished and remarkable selection of little to well known fashion brands, both local and international. Haute Couture tailoring is still practised in Istanbul. Having your entire wardrobe made bespoke isn’t an unusual or unaffordable luxury due to the city’s many tailors.

A little history of Turkish fashion from the Ottoman Empire to the founding of the Turkish Republic.

Fashion and the art of adornment has been deeply rooted in Turkish culture at least since the heydays of the Ottoman harem. The harem was the protected area in the palace where only the wives of the Ottoman Sultans, other females of the palace and infants were allowed; men were strictly forbidden. In this secluded area women emphasized the art of embellishment and adornment.

The wardrobe of the upper class and the palace was characterized by sophistication,
plush ornaments, woven patterns with gold and silver threads, filigree embroidery and the best quality materials. The finest silks, brocade, velvet and taft, fur collars, plush fabrics with precious linings were used to make the garments. The Ottoman „palace-textiles“ were hand made specially for the Sultan’s family and palace members.

The use of make-up among the harem women was also common. The harem ladies would brighten their complexions with almond and jasmine paste, emphasize their eyes, eyebrows and eyelashes with black carbon, and for the lips they put on red, long before Chanel’s famous lipstick came along.

After the demise of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, fashion changed completely. Atatürk, the founding father of Turkey, initiated a number of reforms for the sake of modernizing the country: wearing the veil for women and the fez for men was forbidden, the Arabic alphabet was replaced by the Latin alphabet, families had to take a last name, and women were granted civil rights including the right to vote and to hold public office.

In those early days of the Republic, women looked to Europe for fashion inspiration. After the liberalization of the dress code it was primarily the younger generations
in big cities like Istanbul and Izmir who first adapted Western clothing styles and started to wear them in daily life. The social and cultural life took place primarily
in Istanbul. Countless bars, cafes, variete theaters, salons, hotels, restaurants, department stores, haute couture dressmakers testified to the blossoming of the Republic during this time. The women had short hair, flapper dresses, coats
with fur collars, fancy cloches and glamorous cigarette holders. Men contributed to the period’s style with well-tailored double row suits worn with hats and tuxedos.

Istanbul women and their love of fashion today

Istanbul women of today combine their love for finely crafted adornments – a legacy of the Ottoman times – with an aptitude for following the latest international trends developed by the early Republic women.

Turkish women and their fashion sense are more comparable to French or Italian women than let’s say German women. They spend a lot of money on clothes, grooming and cosmetics. Public appearance is of high value here – 24/7 and 365 days a year. And indeed, the public and personal life of Turkish women presents great variety of occasions where they are both obliged and happy to dress up. From business board room meetings to engagement parties and weddings , let’s take a look:

The many opportunities for Istanbul women to dress up and go out

The love for grooming and dressing up Turkish women have, is deeply rooted in society. A typical woman here sees it is a sign of respect for herself, her peers and society to be as well groomed and dressed as possible. Being “şık,” aka chic, is of utmost importance, for women working both within and outside the home.

  • It starts with dressing up for work which is of course a must – it’s a daily possibility to show one’s refined taste.

Motto: Fashionable Business Chic

  • After work and the night life – get-togethers with friends in bars, local meyhanes, turkish restaurants, clubbing etc. – where the casual day time outfit will be turned up a notch or two

Motto: Rock meets Glam Chick Chic

  • Even Sunday activities as brunches or weekend trips are used to show the right sense of style.

Motto: Casual sporty Chic.

  • The endless succession of all things related to getting married. This topic is serious as it marks an important part of women’s lives no matter which class or age. Of course there are Turkish women who do not intend to get married, but it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the women do so, and this means business when it comes to bridal fashion.

After a couple decides to get married the procedure in general is as following. The groom first comes to visit the bride’s parents and ask for their permission to wed their daughter. If the parents say yes, the next step is to get together with family members for a “söz kesmek” ceremony, the informal engagement. The actual engagement party is the next occasion for which the bride to be will need to find a gown. Between the engagement and the wedding the “kina gecesi” is squeezed in. This is the last get-together of female relatives before the bride’s wedding and is a traditional ceremony marking the upcoming departure of the bride from her parental home.

The cherry on top is the wedding which is usually celebrated with a large crowd of family member and friends. In rural areas these crowds can be up to a thousand people!

All these ceremonies require dresses, gowns and grooming not only for the bride but for all the ladies invited to the parties. As you only intend to marry once of course, the bride-to-be performs all the steps with the highest regard to detail, beauty and performance. The same applies to all other women invited and they will often wear their gowns only once no matter how many weddings, engagements and other parties have to be attended. When you do the math, you will realize that weddings and wedding related fashion is a multi-billion dollar business. Sales for designers and fashion brands in this sector usually perform better others.

  • The term “abiye giyim,” which means evening or stylish dressing in Turkish, covers all kinds of fashionable attire to be worn on special occasions. Weddings and engagements are the most important, followed closely by the festivity of getting together to celebrate the kinda cruel circumcision of a boy’s penis. Then there are regular galas and cocktails to be attended, prom nights for school girls, and maybe there are more occasions that I haven’t heard of yet.

As you can see, the possibilities to dress up in Turkey are endless.

N.B: all of the aforemetioned applies not just to secular women but also to religious women with headscarves. They are also following the trends, are also dressing up for daily life and special occasions and are fashionistas in their own sense.

The feelings of love and hate a woman gets when it comes to grooming herself

Grooming for contemporary Turkish women is as essential as it is time and cost intensive. As much as women may like to embellish and adorn themselves, their relationship with all that that entrails is a story of love and hate. Love of course, because it serves to make one look one’s best. Hate because it is so fucking unfair that women spend all this effort, time and money each month when men are happy to do as little as possible. Men usually say that women don’t have to do all this as they love us no matter what. Not true is my only reply to that claim.

Seriously, women love to do it as they love to look good. For a woman a lot of things change when they hit puberty. The physical changes, getting their period, feelings of sexual attraction, the awakened interest in making oneself pretty are all integral parts of becoming a woman. In Turkey women start waxing from the onset of puberty as body hair is frowned upon in society. As one grows older, the importance of following the latest trends for hairstyles grows. Cutting, highlights, coloring, blow-outs, etc. become additional regular monthly procedures. Add in the bi-monthly mani-pedi as must-do’s, regular eyebrow maintenance, the awful nasty removal of mustache hair, regular facials at the cosmetologist, and you’re spending a pretty decent amount of your monthly salary on personal upkeep. This amount can range from $100 to infinity each month, depending on where your preferred “kuaför” (hair salon) is located. When you come to visit Istanbul you will be surprised by how many hair salons you will see. One good thing is you can get almost everything done at your favorite salon as they provide all procedures except facials.

How to strut in fashion in Istanbul

 Shoes are an important part of a person’s wardrobe. There are many Turkish shoe brands producing several collections of high-quality and fashionable shoe styles. For a true fashionista, picking the right shoe can make or break an outfit. Istanbul women are somehow obsessed with high heels, although the streets are not made to please and cherish these shoes. The sidewalks are narrow and crammed most of the time, the streets are sometimes cracked, the traffic is a mess and the steep hills of Istanbul are merciless. Nevertheless you’ll see many brave Istanbul women strutting their way through Istanbul. It’s a challenge and the sheer effort should be applauded. Of course one can say mean things about these attempts, but heels for a woman can also be a tool of self-empowerment.  And as true urban fashionistas, most women here have their flats handy in their totes, ever ready for a quick change..

How to dress properly as a tourist visiting Istanbul

Of course I won’t tell you how to dress when you come to visit our beautiful city of Istanbul. Many people who come to visit Turkey or Istanbul come with certain misapprehensions and outdated images of its people and culture. Some of them are true but most of them are not. My aim is to encourage you more to come as you are. Don’t dress according to a smart-ass guidebook or a supposedly well informed website which tells you to dress appropriate to Muslim society. Turkey is a Muslim yet secular country. The particular history of the founding of the republic sets it apart from other Muslim countries in the region. Istanbul is a stunning city and you have an endless variety of possibilites to experience it, from the ancient treasures of the Old City to the bustling day and nightlife of Beyoglu, Bebek or Besiktas. Do take a scarf and a cardigan when you visit the mosques. Don’t run around like you would never do at home when you go out.

Be daring, be wild, be sexy, be casual – be just the way you are – just like the beautiful women of Istanbul.