Wedding costumes from a 1930s Turkish studio
“Culture is roughly anything we do and the monkeys don't.”
These seven photographs are from the Rasim photo studio, about which I know nothing except that it was active in the 1930s. It could have been based in Istanbul but Ankara or Izmir would also be possible. Trying to track down information on studios is a worthy pursuit; you sometimes uncover interesting details but they can be irrelevant to the real story. In this case the women are modelling traditional wedding costumes, which might not sound so fascinating in itself except that during the 1930s Turkey was undergoing a radical cultural revolution. It was supposed to be a modern state with a western, secular outlook. Officially the traditional wedding and its elaborate rituals were frowned on. Layers of colourful embroidered silk and satin were out. A modern Turkish bride wore white and her husband sealed the marriage with a gold ring. So, what’s going on here?
Well, it probably isn’t that subversive. The Government passed some famous laws regarding headwear and others that made marriage a civil rather than a religious ceremony but it didn’t expressly forbid traditional costumes. At some point it had to balance its desire for western integration with the banal reality that most of its citizens were rural and weren’t going to discard tradition so quickly, and then there was the nationalist tension between cleaning out a failed system and protecting the Turkish identity. As long as the family kept within the law and had the marriage sanctioned by a government representative, the costume probably wasn’t an issue though, if a woman, or more exactly her parents, were modern citizens of the new republic she would wear white.
These could be actual wedding portraits but it is more likely they were intended to show off a range of traditional outfits available from a store or manufacturer; in other words they are fashion. It seems apparent that some of the women are professional models who know their poses. Also, the range of costumes on display is broad. Traditionally, wedding costumes were regional so a bride from the Black Sea region wore a specific design different to a woman from any other area. This regionalism isn’t always easy to distinguish. The pillbox hat and veil for example appears all over the place and every woman here wears baggy harem pants.
Likewise, each region supposedly had its own ceremonial traditions although a cursory glance suggests there wasn’t that much variation. The stories of wedding celebrations lasting 40 days are either exaggerated or belong to a time long before these photos were taken. Ceremonies tended to last three days during which time the bride remained secluded from the groom. Pampered by her female relatives and friends, the highlight was the henna night when all the women painted elaborate designs over the exposed parts of their bodies. The ritual of the wedding night exposing of the bedsheets to the crowd below appears to belong to the very east, where Arabic and Persian influences were strongest. An aunt was always on hand with a sachet of sheep’s blood in case there was a problem. Everything was done for appearance’ sake.
It’s just possible some of these women are modelling Jewish or Armenian costumes. Despite religious differences Jews and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had absorbed so many traditions that in some cases no one can be certain what belonged to which culture. The costumes weren’t that different, at least to our eyes, the henna night was also practiced by Jews and Armenians and wedding feasts had a similar procedure and menu.
You will notice none of the women have their faces covered. This would have been one prohibition taken seriously by the government although it was and still might be practiced in isolated rural areas. It was also an Armenian and Jewish custom as demonstrated by some 19th century photographs. The white veil served the same function in western tradition, the idea being that the moment of marriage was when the woman revealed herself to her husband and the world. (You will notice too that some of the women appear to be wearing wedding rings. This custom didn’t appear among Muslim Turks until the emergence of the new republic when the other accoutrements of western marriage were taken on.) Another traditional custom that was outlawed was polygamy, even though, like arranged marriages, it was almost impossible to enforce, especially if it was conducted without ceremony but the approval of the village council. These photographs can be read as a compromise between emerging western and traditional Ottoman ideas. The dress is traditional, but not entirely, and the structure of the photographs follows western imagery.
Which brings us to this, the photograph that expresses that dynamic most directly. The bride wears white, her maids traditional costumes. It isn’t going too far to say this image exemplifies official doctrine. The ceremony should obviously be western yet it ought to acknowledge Turkish culture. See how all the men in these photos wear standard black tie. To wear the traditional outfit of the groom or his best men would be difficult since by now the fez was outlawed yet it would have also defined them as country types, which is to say backward and poor. The women could do it because, even in the villages, their wedding costumes were intended to define them on their special day as glamorous beauties. Within a few years the traditional wedding costume would disappear entirely from the cities and almost everywhere else but isolated areas. In the last few years it has made something of a comeback, inspired by the revival of interest in Ottoman culture.