Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey

Robes of Honor (Hil’at)

Detail, from the Surname Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul; from 'Ipek
Detail, from the Surname Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul; from ‘Ipek

One of the most important uses of silk fabrics was their distribution as “robes of honor” (hil’at), a term derived from the Arabic khil’at in the West. The practice played a pivotal role in maintaining Ottoman political hierarchy within the empire and strengthened military and economic relations with foreign powers.

Distributed by the sultan or one of his representatives, robes of honor were intended to mark special occasions, such as the birth of a prince, the success of a military campaign, or holy days in the Muslim calendar. Silk kaftans were also offered as diplomatic gifts, as reward for a particular service, as commemoration of a new appointment, or as part of an individual’s salary and compensation.

Both foreign diplomats and local officials were fully aware of the robes’ symbolism as an indication of their rank and status. The number of robes, their fabric, and whether they were lined with fur signified the honor conferred on an individual. Among the most prestigious robes of honor were those made from gold cloth (seraser) or Italian velvet. Religious dignitaries received woolen ones because they disapproved of silk as a sign of human vanity.