Dar Anahita Presents

Ottoman Women's Clothing
An Historical Overview


When i joined the SCA and selected a Near Eastern persona, i looked for a culture, a time, and a place to focus my research. Many "Middle Easterners" were wearing big poofy "harem" pants and "coats" that buttoned in the front, with low cut necklines and sometimes tippets hanging from short sleeves, which were called Ghawazee coats (also spelled Ghawazi, and sometimes misspelled variously as Gahwazi, gawazee, gawahzee, etc.). I was told these were "Turkish" and i saw so many women dressed in variations of these, both locally and in SCA photos on the internet, that i figured someone had already done the research and Ottoman clothing was not an area crying out for more study.

So i researched other areas - North Africa, al-Andalus, Egypt, Persia... And while doing this research, i kept finding information about actual SCA-period Ottoman women's clothing that did not support what i was seeing. It became very clear that poofy "harem pants" and short, multiply-slit "Ghawazee coats" with their wide "windows of opportunity" were not based on anything that existed in SCA period. These garments are a combination of late 20th/early 21st century conventions rather than having any basis in SCA-period Ottoman clothing. Historically there is no such thing as a Ghawazee coat at any time period. And the garment so-called is based on misinterpretations of 19th c. illustrations of female dancers from the Ghawazee ethnic group, living in Cairo, and wearing the Ottoman entari. There's nothing particularly culturally Ghawazi about it.

While i have no objection to dancers wearing whatever they like that is appropriate in a modern setting, i find wearing clearly mid-19th century, late 20th century, and fantasy clothing in the SCA setting - while claiming that it is just fine - to be disturbing. In fact, it is not a "reasonable attempt" at Medieval and Renaissance clothing. If people with European personas wore mid-19th or early 20th century European clothing, it would be very out of place. And wearing modern Middle Eastern clothing is just as out of place. Especially when making period or at least peri-oid clothing is so easy.

Problems of Relying on Art Alone

Here in the SCA those of us interested in costuming attempt to recreate clothing of the past. It is frustrating for many time periods and many places because little if any actual clothing survives on which we can base our re-creations. We are forced to rely chiefly on art for the appearance and shape of garments. And art is never a photographic reproduction.

Throughout most of the time period in which we work, art is very highly stylized. Artists were taught to paint a fold in a particular way, a shoe in a particular way, a hem in a particular way - to show a hat sitting on a head in a particular way, something hanging off a belt in a particular way - and none of these methods is drawn from life. The proportions of the human body in art are rarely reflective of real bodies. There are techniques for suggesting three dimensions, but they rarely look realistic. These conventions sometimes help us, but just as often they obscure how things really looked.

Most of the art portraying Ottoman women in the 16th and 17th centuries was not drawn from life, or even by highly skilled artists - with the exception of Bellini. Rather they were drawn based on artistic conventions, not human realities. Additionally, when Europeans were actually drawing women from life, they would rarely have seen actual "well bred" women, and may have hired prostitutes to pose for them. And finallly, as i hope i show further on, many sources are copied from one another, which further compounds their less-than-true-to-life quality.

Now i accept that when we want to make their clothing, we must rely on these less than reliable sources. Because of this, it is to our benefit to refer to more sources than a single book or artist. We have to learn how to judge which pictures are more trustworthy in their representation of Ottoman women as they were, rather than as a European misunderstanding or an Ottoman caricature. We really must look at pictures of surviving garment fabrics to choose our colors and patterns, rather than relying purely on how garments were painted. We cannot discount these paintings. We must use them. But we must use more.

Actual Ottoman Garments

There are few surviving women's garments from this period. I know of only one or two woman's entaris, but they are useful for garment cut and style. And there is a selection of women's hats by which we can trace the changes in hats as shown in art. Finally there are quite a few surviving men's garments, which can be helpful in determinging garment cut, and fabric colors and patterns, since men's and women's garments were quite similar (although footwear and head coverings were quite distinctive).

And it can sometimes be helpful to look at clothing from related cultures. This would included Persian, Mongol, and other Turkic people such as Uighurs and the earlier Seljuks. People in all these cultures wear related garments that reflect Central Asian style. This system involves layers of coat-like garments that open fully in the front (either center front or off-center) and long pants with tapered legs that are relatively narrow at the ankles and a complex system of gussets in the crotch, inner legs, and rear for ease of movement.

It does not help to look at unrelated cultures such as Arab, Egyptian, or Syrian, since the clothing systems are very different. The basic Arabic system is composed of pull-over-the-head tunics and various sized and proportioned rectangular pieces of cloth which are then wrapped or draped over different body part. Pants were borrowed in pre-Islamic times from the Persians - including the word for them (sirwal (sing.), sarawil (pl.)). in the Arabic style, these are somewhat like modern pajama pants. The legs are cut from a single width of cloth, so they are as wide at the bottom as they are at the top - about 27 inches. For comfort and ease of movement, a simple and ample gusset is sewn into the crotch.

Problems of Internet Research for Ottoman Clothing

Many of us rely heavily on the internet for our research. There are various reasons for this. Some folks don't realize that they can get all sorts of book with Inter-Library Loan (ILL). Some folks don't have ILL available to them. Some folks don't know how to do research or are intimidated by the idea of doing research, and don't really know how to find appropriate books. Some folks are, well, lazy.

Many websites do not discuss important issues, such as artistic conventions, use of color, etc. Many display pictures without much additional information, often not even the date of the art. Turkish websites are often quite frustrating - they may have many pictures, but no captions, no idea when or by whom the art was made. Some Islamic websites will not post Islamic art other than the purely decorative and abstract.

Ottoman Women's Clothing Historical Overview

In the following pages i have gathered art from various websites, especially a Turkish government website. I have tried to order them chronologically and to give information about the artists or what they represent, in an attempt to help SCA costumers understand what SCA period Ottoman women's clothing looked like, as compared to the clothing from out of our period.

Please let me know if this is helpful or what i can do to improve it. If you have more information on dates and artists of what is here or if you know of more sources of suitable art, i would very much like to hear from you.

15th and 16th: One new better picture from Cod. Vind.
18th: Improved attributions of artists

Late 15th and 16th Century Ottoman Women's Clothing

17th Century Ottoman Women's Clothing

18th Century Ottoman Women's Clothing

19th Century Ottoman Women's Clothing

Actual Ottoman Fabric