ARTICLE : FUSUN AKAY
Style and Status
Caftans of the Sultans
Fusing art with political power, the ‘caftans of the sultans’ are set to dazzle the eye at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. until 22 January.
When Nasreddin Hoja went to a wedding feast dressed in his ordinary clothes, nobody paid him at least attention. He wasn’t even asked to sit down. Feeling slighted, the Hoja raced back home and donned his ‘Sunday best’, a sumptuous fur coat. When he returned to the feast, the host seated him immediately at the head of the table and placed an array of tasty dishes in front of him. Some time later when the Hoja, dipping one end of his fur into the soup, shouted, “Eat, my coat, eat!”, the guests were shocked. “Whatever are you doing?” they asked, “whoever heard of a fur coat eating soup?” To which the Hoja replied: “It is my coat that such commanded such respect and such savory offerings, so let it eat too!”
This is of course a well-known story associated with Nasreddin Hoja, a Turkish folk figure who lived in the 13th century. But it has lost nothing of its pithy relevance over the centuries. Joking aside, forms of dress have been an important symbol of power in every period. Nor is the situation any different today when we are judged by everything from the cars we drive and the homes we live in to the watches and jewelry we wear. The caftans worn in the Ottoman period were also potent symbols of power, the power of the sultans in particular. The caftans of the sultans were not only an indicator of the political clout of their wearers, but were at the same time an expression of the refined taste, richness and creativity of Ottoman art in their period.
Now the whole world has an opportunity to witness that wealth in a spectacular exhibition, ‘Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey’, mounted at the Freer and Arthur Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Nor will that be end end of it. The exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution in cooperation with the Turkish Ministry of Culture with Koç Holding as primary sponsor, will enable visitors to see these splendid 16th and 17th century imperial caftans until 22nd January. Concurrently, the exhibition marks the start of a ten-year cultural cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey, and Koç Holding will again be one of the leading sponsors.
A FUNCTION IN HISTORY
Most of the caftans in the exhibition, which has been curated by Ottoman art specialist Prof. Dr. Nurhan Atasoy and Dr. Massumeh Farhad of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, were borrowed from the Topkapı Palace Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Islamic textiles. The others belong to the collections of the Mevlana Museum in Konya and The Hermitage of St. Petersburg in Russia. Besides the caftans of Sultan Selim the Grim and Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and his son, Şehzade Bayezid, headgear, cushions and floor coverings of embroidered fabrics have also been included in the exhibition.
But it is the caftans without a doubt that attract the most interest among visitors to the museum, dazzling the eye with the brilliant designs of their fabrics. These caftans, which were sewn specially for the sultan and his family, are cut conspicuously long and wide, the reason for their ample proportions being to further enhance the sultan’s already majestic appearance. Most of the caftans are open in the front, with short stand-up collars, long or short sleeves, pockets and a slit down the side. The sultans had two types of caftans, one for outerwear and one for innerwear. Those worn on the outside were the ‘ceremonial caftans’. Like the others in cut, they were distinguished by a longer, second sleeve called a ‘yen’, which fell from the shoulder, covering the hand. Besides adding splendor to the sultan’s appearance, they also performed an historic function since it was this part of the caftan that was ‘kissed’ by subjects at ceremonies, for example, on holidays. This practice was abandoned during the Tanzimat period of reforms in the mid-19th century when the edge of the throne began to be kissed instead.
Most outer caftans were made of costly fabrics such as brocade, silk velvet or satin and then decorated with furs and precious stones such as emeralds and diamonds. Silk brocade, known as ‘seraser’, was the most highly valued fabric among the Ottomans. And the finest brocades, which were interwoven with threads either of an alloy of gold and silver or of straight silver, were produced under the supervision of the ‘Serasercibaşı’ or ‘Head Brocade Maker’ in textile workshops attached to the Palace at Istanbul. Meanwhile another kind of brocade known as ‘kemha’ or silk velvet was woven mainly in Bursa and Amasya. The caftans that form the overwhelming majority of the imperial costumes however are those made of ‘atlas’ or satin. Made of satin, a stiff, shiny sort of silk fabric, in a solid color, they were usually red, blue or green since these were the colors favored by the sultans. Other fabrics used to make caftans include gold-threaded ‘çatma’ (a form of silk brocade), velvet, ‘hataî’, ‘gezi’ (a silk-cotton blend), ‘selimiye’ (another form of silk) and ‘çuha (broadcloth).
MOTIFS FROM NATURE
But a caftan also had other features which were as important as its fabric, namely its color, design and motifs. In the early periods of the Empire, plane tree leaf, pomegranate and large pine cone designs were often used on fabrics that were extremely brilliant in color. Caftans with tulip, cloud and ‘dot’ motifs are frequently encountered in the 16th century when the Turkish art of the fabric was highly advanced. As a symbol of power, the sultans usually wore caftans displaying the ‘Chintamani’ or Chinese cloud motif, which consists of three overlapping circles, to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the carnation motif, in the form of a stylized bouquet, was used frequently on fabrics in the 17th century. Moreover, when we examine caftans from periods when Ottoman power in the political sphere had begun to wane, we see that they are smaller and exhibit a preference for stripes rather than solid colors. For those who are wondering if it was only the sultan and his family who wore caftans, let us hasten to explain that, besides the imperials caftans, there were also caftans known as ‘hil’at’, or robes of honor, which were bestowed on high-ranking foreigners, palace officials and distinguished men of state. Caftans that were made for the purpose of conferring honor were presented to persons of superior character who had benefited the state in some way. For some they are a symbol of power, for others an expression of the refined taste and creativity of Ottoman art. But whether you regard them as a manifestation of style or status, or of both at once, be sure to see these magnificent caftans, which bear testimony to the centuries.
We would like to thank Koç Holding for their help in securing the visual materials.