Being A Child In The Palace

The clothing of the Ottoman royal princes and princesses who shared power in the empire represents the essence of the entire Palace collection.

My interest in the children’s clothing in the Topkapı Palace Museum collection of imperial garments began in 1990 when I was asked to mount a temporary exhibition of children’s clothing in the hall of sultans’ garments, restoration of which had been completed that year. The Palace’s collection of clothing and fabrics was extremely rich, and putting on an exhibition that would reflect their taste from the 15th to the beginning of the 20th century would be a useful undertaking. That dossier, which has been enriched with information I have collected both in Turkey and abroad ever since that day, eventually turned into a book: ‘Children of the Ottoman Palace: The Lives and Clothing of the Royal Princes and Princesses’. In this book, which I compiled with the support from the Turkish company Aygaz, I consider, from a new angle, the lives of the royal princes and princesses who grew up in Ottoman palaces and possessed great importance and power even as children. In compiling the book it was necessary to touch on a number of different topics from the birth of palace children and their status in the family to their education, their social lives, their clothing, their portraits, even their personal effects such as seals. Here I would like to offer a summary of the clothing of those children, which forms the major part of the book.

The highest ranking officials of the empire that was administered by the policies of the Ottoman dynasty were chosen from among the palace eunuchs who were trained in the Imperial Harem and in the Enderun, which was attached to it. The royal princes and princesses born to the sultans of the dynasty also shared in its power and were presented to the people in ‘processions of the cradle’ at the time of their birth. Ottoman princesses were usually married off in extremely lavish festivities that were organized to coincide with the circumcision ceremonies of the royal princes. The status of such princesses rose depending on the importance of the groom’s position. In the beginning, the married daughters of the sultans accompanied their husbands to wherever they were stationed and could not return to the capital even to visit without permission from the palace.
Until the end of the 16th century, royal princes were sent to a ‘sancak’ or province, where they became a part of the administration for that region and thus prepared themselves for ruling the country. The departure of a royal prince for a province was a sign of having reached maturity and was regarded as the start of his political career. This departure took place in a special ceremony in the company of high-ranking men of state. Dressed in ceremonial caftans, royal princes set out with their retinue on horses whose saddles were encrusted with jewels. In the military campaigns waged up to the end of the 16th century royal princes either commanded their own wing of the army, or were called back to the capital to stand in for their fathers. Under the influence of the class of administrators, particularly of royal prince mentors (‘lala’), that grew up from time to time around them, violent succession struggles occurred, sometimes with the sultan, sometimes with the other princes. In order to prevent this, starting from the end of the 16th century, it was decided not to send royal princes to the provinces any more, or even to allow them to have children as long as they were princes.

A look at the palace’s garment collection reveals some one hundred children’s garments among the total 1550 pieces. Among them are the undergarments known as ‘zıbın’, underpants, diapers, full-length undergarments (‘entari’), outer caftans, pantaloons (şalvar), headgear, and shoes. Costumes for the empire’s final period are few and were added to the collection through purchase. Among the Ottomans, men’s, women’s and children’s clothing differ only in their measurements. The costume consists of outer pantaloons with a silk crepe shirt on top, a full length undergarment in the form of a loose robe, and an outer caftan, all worn over a set of undergarments. Foremost among children’s undergarments is the ‘zıbın’, which was made of the thinnest and most tightly woven fabrics such as tulle (‘tülbent’) or cambric. These garments were usually lined with a layer of cotton. Children’s underpants meanwhile, which were held up by a convenient drawstring, were made of fine tulle. Depending on the season, the caftans, which were made of heavy silk, might be lined with fur or, in the case of everyday caftans, with cotton. The silk brocade caftans worn for ceremonies were distinguished by their length (down to the floor) and their sleeves, which again fell all the way to the floor from the back of the shoulder.
Headgear was very important among the Ottomans as well. No one went bareheaded either indoors or out, and if you did it was regarded as an unforgivable breach of decorum. At night nightcaps were worn even in bed. The sultans usually wore turbans that were enlarged by wrapping lengths of tulle around long, colorful, fluted crests. The young crown princes too went around with enormous turbans on their heads. Adorned with bejeweled aigrettes, these were extremely valuable. The palace women meanwhile wore either small, flat fezzes or a sort of headdress (‘hotoz’) that could be either narrow at the bottom and wide on top or vice-versa. The status of the palace women could be determined by the jewels they attached to these headdresses. Girls born to the dynasty were also decked in jewels from early childhood.

Children’s clothes, like those for adults, continued unchanged throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Then, in the 18th century, caftans began to be made from more simple fabrics. At the beginning of the 19th century, even though there was little change in the cut of the garments, an increase is observed in the decorative materials used. Wide, gilded trim, silken cord, and lace and embroidery from Europe were used to adorn dresses. The details of the cut were accentuated by this trim, which was attached to the front hems of skirts, on slits, around the edge of sleeves and on arm slits, giving them an exaggerated appearance. As the grown daughters of the sultans enhanced their power during this period, they began having their clothes made by seamstresses outside the palace through contacts set up by their servants.
One of the most significant events of the first half of the century was surely the abolition of the Janissary Corps in 1828. Mahmud II, who carried out this operation, also effected a clothing reform, fitting out his newly formed army in Western style uniforms and making them wear the fezz. Belong long the style of these uniforms, which consisted of trousers and a jacket, also came to dominate children’s clothing.
Children’s clothes were simply adult garments on a smaller scale. Through children’s clothing, you can therefore follow the main lines of the palace garment collection in terms of fabric, design, cut and stitching all the way from the 16th century right up to the beginning of the 20th.