And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 21 April 2012


Oriental fashions
 “Just as I was about to speak, Atatürk clapped his hands and, as he had orchestrated it, the dancing girls appeared, their multicoloured veils floating suggestively in the coolness of the room. As they danced their slow, sensuous dance, wordlessly Atatürk motioned that I sit on the red velvet and copper-collared cushions next to him. Mesmerized, I complied.”
Zsa Zsa Gabor, One Lifetime Is Not Enough, 1991

When this photo was taken in about 1905, modern A La Turca had been a fashion statement in Paris for just a few years. It didn’t have that much to do with Turkey, or more precisely, if the clothes conjured up images of the Orient they were A La Turca, and the Orient in a lot of peoples’ imagination was anywhere east of Italy. As fashion trends went it was a hard one to kill. Just when it should have faded, something would come along – Mata Hari, a new Rudolph Valentino film, the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb and Oriental fever flared up again. Women put on turbans, scarves and long strings of beads and let it be known they were more exotic than their day job suggested they were. Zsa Zsa Gabor wrote two autobiographies, the original, tamer version when her first husband, the Turkish politician Burhan Belge was still alive, and the less discreet account where the quote above was drawn from. Did Ataturk really clap his hands and a troupe of dancing girls appear? It’s possible, although the scene as Ms Gabor tells it reads like she was confusing a memory with a Bob Hope film. 

There’s a common misconception that Ataturk outlawed the headscarf when it was the veil, the niqab, or to be specific, clothing associated with religion that was proscribed. Perhaps he would have liked to get rid of the headscarf but not for any particularly religious reasons, rather because of its associations with peasantry and all that it didn’t represent; education, sophistication, modernity. His vision for the Turkish Republic was that it would be run by self-possessed professionals who could distinguish between science and superstition, but then he hit the nationalist’s dilemma. How far can you go when the elements you want to transform are essential to the culture’s identity? Take the woman above: on the one hand everything she represents is the antithesis of the ideal woman in the new republic, on the other the image she projects is so quintessentially Turkish that to discourage its depiction was to challenge the national character. 

One way around the problem was to think counter-intuitively and instead of suppressing the folklore promote it, being careful to make it obvious that the imagery wasn’t portraits but typologies. No one looking at this photograph would think the woman was an authentic villager; the studio well gave the game away. It belongs to a genre (is that the word?) that began in the 1860s, when European studios producing CDVs found there was extra money to be made out of the local folklore. Some of the very best studios weren’t too proud to play this game, especially when all they needed was a costume and a model and both could be procured cheaply. By the time this photo was taken the idea had pretty much run its course, or more accurately, the traditions had faded from view. Turkey was one of the few countries where most of the population was still rural based and folk traditions survived.

And then there was the new republic’s wealthy, urban and secular elites, which clearly is where this woman came from. There are several possibilities to explain this photo, but whether she dressed for something like a small scale fashion shoot or if the headscarf was part of her daily wear, was she aware that she was drawing on a Western European fashion which originally had found inspiration in Turkey? It’s a great image though irony doesn’t seem the point here. 

But it is here. On the back of this 1930s snapshot is an inscription written in Spanish. “A mia Turca (the mid section is mostly indecipherable) Mil abrazos (a thousand hugs)”. Spanish tourists? Probably. Most of the fun in visiting a foreign country is imagining you have some connection to it, so why not dress as you imagine Turks do, or ought to? 

As discussed in a previous post, in Bulgaria the independence movement was driven by people who wanted to kick free of all Ottoman influences including dress sense. At the turn of the century anything that looked like a celebration of the Ottoman era was a tribute to its worst elements and an image like this was only a reminder of them. A few years on however and folk traditions were considered intrinsic to national identity. Identifying what was indigenous and what was borrowed was a part of the process but after 500 years of occupation there was a lot that no one could be sure of.



  1. Fascinating and informative post. The A La Turca fashion statement was new to me, but it did make me think of my first and favorite 45rpm record that I ever bought (and played over and over again when I was 10), which was Mozart's Rondo alla Turca. It makes me wonder if there was a similar fashion trend during Mozart's time or if it was simply Mozart's interest.

  2. Yes there was Christine and apparently it was high fashion in Paris and Vienna. Also, by Mozart's time the Europeans weren't so scared of the Ottomans so they liked getting about in turbans and long gowns.

  3. I agree with Christine, a very fascinating set of photos. Identifying ethnic and national fashions is very challenging. "Oriental" styles in Europe were part of theater and opera and also mixed up in political and colonial power struggles. They were however an easy cliche to throw into a story. Genuine middle-eastern fashions like these are fun and instructive to see.


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