Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey

“Clothes Make the Man”

Illustration adapted from an anonymous woodcut by Domenico de' Franceschi, 1568 (from IPEK).
Illustration adapted from an anonymous woodcut by Domenico de’ Franceschi, 1568 (from IPEK).

No phrase more appropriately describes the dazzling effect of Ottoman robes (kaftans) as the foremost items of personal luxury in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Turkey. Their bright colors, bold designs, and ample shapes conveyed a sense of imperial splendor that became synonymous with the artistic, cultural, and political ideals of the Ottoman Empire (reigned 1281-1924).

The Ottomans were not alone in recognizing the importance of precious fabrics, which were considered an indispensable commodity throughout the Islamic world. They succeeded in developing a distinct language of design or “brand” to express the Ottoman ideology of power to friends and foes alike.

The Ottomans offered silk and as diplomatic gifts to cement political relationships and affirm their power and wealth. Within the realm, silk was used to compensate loyal subjects and confer rank and status. The symbolic importance of silk is even echoed in the language and rituals of the court: high officials “kissed the hem of the sultan’s garment” to show their allegiance and respect, while the ruler himself was said to don “the mantle of authority.” Silk ranked as one of the most important forms of artistic expression-the ultimate embodiment of style and status.