Thursday, 22 April 2010


Caftans are fairly simple in construction and tailoring, using mostly straight seams. It was the quality of the fabric that was intended to impress (although the majority of surviving caftans are of plain material).

They generally have round necks, sometimes with a small stand-up collar. They usually have buttons to the waist, either jewelled or covered in the same fabric as the caftan. The buttons fastened through loops rather than buttonholes.

Caftans were usually three-quarter to full length, although shorter knee length caftans were worn for sport or battle. Sleeves were short, wrist or ankle length. Short sleeves came to the elbow, with a curved cut out in front where the arm would bend. Wrist length sleeves extended just past the fingertips, and were worn bunched up at the wrist and fastened tightly with buttons. Ankle length sleeves were purely decorative, falling empty behind and worn only on the outer garment.

The sultan and his court would frequently wear three caftans: one with wrist length sleeves under another with short sleeves, under another with decorative ankle length sleeves, so their contrasting fabrics could all be seen and admired.

Who wore it? Where was it used?

Caftans got their importance especially in the Ottoman Empire and the art of caftan climax in 16th Century.

Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. At its height in the late 16th and early 17th Century, the mighty Ottoman Empire (1281–1924) extended from present-day Iraq in the east to the Balkans in the west to North Africa in the south. Istanbul in the 16th century must have been quite a sight. During the reign of Suleyman I, called the Magnificent, some of the greatest mosques in the world went up. The Topkapi palace, at one point, records show, employed a staff of 2,229 doorkeepers, 1,372 cooks, 21 food tasters and just over 5,000 gardeners.

Istanbul, at the meeting point of Europe and Asia was cosmopolitan in every way. Ottomans kept Istanbul stocked with fresh aesthetic and intellectual capital, luring poets, historians, scientists and artists from abroad, the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini among them.

Ottoman society was rigidly hierarchical. Luxurious ceremonial robes worn for civilian and religious ceremonies as well as on the battlefield played a central role in court life. The finest and most precious robes were reserved for the Sultan and his family, but "robes of honor" (hilyat) were also distributed to foreign dignitaries, local courtiers and state officials.

All this erecting and gathering was expensive. But the Ottomans were rich. And an important part of their wealth was in the form of silk cloth, which served both as currency and as a source of identity.

In the eyes of status-obsessed Ottomans, you were what you wore.

And what other symbolic meaning of caftans?

There are also the so called “Robes of Honor“(Hilat). Distributed by the sultan, robes of honor were intended to mark special occasions such as a birth of a prince, success of a military campaign or holy days in the Muslim calendar. Statesmen and war heroes were awarded silk "robes of honor" instead of medals.

Silk caftans were also offered as diplomatic gifts, as reward for a particular service, as commemoration of a new appointment or part of the salary. The foreign diplomats and local officials were fully aware of its symbolism as an indication of their rank and status. In any case, wearing one of these garments was tricky for a diplomat. Yes, it marked him as a “Somebody” in imperial estimation. It also signalled that he and, by extension, the monarch he spoke for acknowledged themselves to be subject to the Ottoman sultan's authority.

The fabric, whether they were lined with fur, signified the honor conferred on an individual. The most prestigious ones were those made with golden threat (seraser) and Italian velvet.

Funerals were another important context. The new sultan presided over the ceremony wearing an unadorned robe, made out of satin or mohair in the preferred colour for mourning: black, deep blue or purple. He wore the same robe for his accession ceremony which followed immediately to assure smooth succession to the throne and to fend off any possible dissention.

How come we know so much about imperial robes and have so many surviving examples in museums today?  There seems to be an important conservation of caftans over centuries?

In the Ottoman tradition to mark the death of a sultan, his clothing was stored away after labelled and stored away in a vast archive of ancestral finery. We can still take the measure of that wardrobe thanks to the large number of imperial outfits, more than 2500 items that survived in nearly pristine condition, in Istanbul 's royal palace, now the Topkapi Museum .

No other collection of historic costumes has survived in anything like this shape, for this long. That must be because the sultans' outfits were too close to standing for their rule. Their caftans were not simply unusually fancy garments, worn for a while to keep out the cold, and then handed down for some others to use. When a sultan died, his precious clothes were preserved with nearly as much reverence as the ruler's body.

What do you mean by “too close to the standing of the sultan”? Did this robe have such a political importance?

Yes. It was one of the ultimate symbols of the sultans and the Ottoman rule. That would be the power look favoured in 16th Century Ottoman Turkey . Two centuries before Louis XIV stood in Versailles announcing that "l’Etat, c'est moi," the sultans in Istanbul had already made themselves into their state.

First logo:

Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler's chief curator, says that the Ottomans practically invented the concept of a logo. One of the most identifiable combinations was the tulip and vine motif with long elegant leaves. Although maybe tulips don’t come from ottomans, that became identifiable with the empire's centralized political strength and growing economic power—its style and status and whenever you saw cintamani designs, you'd think 'Ottoman.

The idea that clothing functions as a nonverbal announcement of lineage, prestige and social hierarchy and style as a way to show power and wealth, as a form of intimidation and as a kind of social and political currency is today founded on logos, is represented by many brands such as  Ralph Lauren’s polo player, Prada, Chanel or Calvin Klein. Creation of a signature, a visual image that was unmistakable, a cachet that can be read quickly and from afar, is what today’s designers and brands are looking after.

Therefore textiles in Ottoman Empire were not seen only as commercial items (they were exporting to all over Europe ) but also as a diplomatic commodity. This is also the reason why we find the same designs on other branches of art such as metalwork and ceramics.

Why are they so distinct?

They are distinct in many aspects. For instance their cut is extraordinarily simple. As the textile design is so important otherwise it would break up the pattern of the fabric of ceremonial costumes. This large scale needs a different type of cutting. The cut is very voluminous, nobler, showing much bigger than actually people were. It gives the sense of volume.

In fact, the most deeply interesting thing about fashion is politics; the only mystery is why fashion isn't more often critically discussed in terms of class and gender, in terms of how clothes not only make the man, but make the man different - bigger, better - than other men.

It's all about immediate visual impact, even from a considerable distance, the distance, say, that must be kept between a lowly subject and the living symbol of his nation's greatness and order.

When a sultan went out to a public ceremony he always wore clothes to show off his superiority over ordinary folks. He never spent time with his foreign visitors more than was necessary to strike awe. His costume was so designed that when he mounted a horse his royal pants had the same impact on his subjects as when he received them while he was standing with his caftan on. We're talking about a lifestyle based on status, and its most prominent display was costumes worn on different occasions.

 So we will talk about volume, motifs and fabric.

Let’s start with volume. 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. Sleets to liberate the arms while seating on the throne and leaving the sleeves to fall down from both sides of the throne is also a tradition kept from Central Asia .


Ottoman silk production was not always as bold and daring. In late 15th Century, patterns are much intricate and dense. This is the international style popular during that period both in Turkey , Iran and the East.  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. Later part in the 16th Century Ottomans developed a much more daring style differentiating from those of Iran and Mongols.

They have exploited the recurring design. By repeatedly combining the similar motifs in different scales and patterns, the Ottomans were among the first to use recurrent motifs to create a dramatic and distinct visual language - a quintessentially "Ottoman brand» created often by abstract motifs.

Best example is the”Cintemani” or in other words the Chinese cloud motif:  It consists of three overlapping circles, 3 dots and a cloud motive and sometimes with a tiger stripe. This is the most distinctive motive associated with the Ottomans, derived from a Sanskrit word: “auspicious jewel”. Among Turkic people and Iran of Central Asia, it was regarded as the ward of evil used to intimidate the enemy on the battlefield .These motives appeared during the 15th Century by the Timourides in Afghanistan and Iran . But in 16th Century Ottomans turned them into symbols of power of Ottoman rulers associated with the one of tigers.

Finally woven but large-scale motifs served especially to be visible to bystanders creating a theatrical effect kept at a safe remove while the ruler rode by on parade. One of the most striking features of Ottoman textile design, its trade mark, is the bold patterns. Caftans with a plain field of colour with a few repeated forms on a monochromatic ground would announce your approach from two blocks away. Many caftans of the sultan’s display this property be the «cintamani" motif or tulips and carnations that march across the surface.

The caftan of Sultan Ibrahim 1st has crescent moons integrated in the cintemani motif, showing a very high conceptual quality. On this caftan, the group of 3 spheres is replaced with the crescents, forming in turn a cintemani design.

The crescent motif made its appearance in Turkish Art in the 14th Century in flags, banners and dome finials. It is the symbol of the “state”.

Fabrics are rarely decorated with bird and animal motifs. 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 colours.


Ottomans used bright colours. Bold, solid colours, moiré were all popular. The more colourful the better it was. Dark or sombre colours were uncommon. Black was very unpopular. Checks and stripes are almost never seen. The most important colour is the colour red. The most important of the dyes used in Turkey was crimson (kirmizi) in different shades,

obtained from cochenille de Nepal (dried body of coccids give a rich color). Also obtained from garance, it enabled to produce the palette of brown, red, violet. Blue is obtained with indigo imported form India to produce all blue to pink, purple, violet shades. Yellow and green were obtained by mixing it with copper.


Textile was an important part of ottoman court life closely linked to the political, ceremonial and cultural life of the sultans. They choose the very best material for these occasions such as coronations, funerals, acceptance of ambassadors. Everybody had its rank, carefully choreographed. Caftans are also clearly categorised. Those which belonged to sultan and his family and those worn by others. 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. Caftans of lighter weight materials were worn closer to the body, with the heavier fabrics being the outer layers.

Cotton was the usual lining material, with fur sometimes used to line a heavy outer coat. Silk facing was used at the neck, cuffs, hem and side slits, and was usually a contrasting colour to the caftan and lining fabrics. Big importance was given to the detail: for example bright red lining was visible when the sultanwasonhorseback.

The most precious fabric was silk seraser, a silk brocade of gold and silver thread, the most expensive and luxurious and the most highly valued. It was produced with silk tread wrapped with fine gold or silver foil, woven all through the background. Its production was so expensive that the treasury controlled the production. Many of them didn’t survive because they were melted down and yielded many kilograms of gold and silver which turned into cash in the needed times.This fabric was only worn by the sultan.

Kemha is silk brocade featuring a three-dimensional surface with some areas of pile and some of metal thread woven mainly in Bursa and Amasya.

Catma: in both weave and technique is a variety of velvet with a raised design.

Atlas is a stiff, shiny sort of silk fabric, in a solid color, usually red, blue or green since these were the colors favored by the sultans.

Other fabrics used to make caftans include gold-threaded catma, a form of silk brocade, velvet hataî, gezi, a silk-cotton blend, and selimiye, another form of silk, and çuha, broadcloth. In terms of ranking brocaded silk is the least important one coming after the velvet. Even satin was more important. The caftans that form the overwhelming majority of the imperial costumes however are those made of ‘atlas’ or satin.

Winter caftans were lined in fur which was the sign of great status. The most valued furs were sable and ermine. But lynx, fox and lamb were also popular. Fur lined caftans were deemed the ultimate robe of honor. According to court tradition the sultan wore sable lined caftans during the winter and chose robes with a lighter ermine lining during warmer summer months. So does all the court after sultan changes his fur to a thicker or lighter one.

How about the material value of these imperial robes?

A sultan's majestic robes didn't simply stand for the majesty of his position at the helm of state. Those caftans were also symbols of the wealth of the Ottoman Empire . They did the job because they were expensive, of course. But also because, more than other precious objects might have done, they stood for particularly Turkish riches. The trade in silk, as raw thread and woven goods, was a pillar of the Ottoman economy throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. The Turks controlled the routes from the nearest silk-producing lands, in what is now Iran , to the silk-starved cities and courts of Europe , just then undergoing an economic and cultural boom that made them eager clients. The Ottomans went to war whenever that control was threatened, and the Sultan's caftans represented the wealth his subjects were fighting and dying for.

To some extent they themselves were the nation's capital. Topkapi protocol might specify that some of a certain civil servant's salary would be paid in fine imperial textiles, with the grade of silk and workmanship carefully indicated. The sultans could also use the doling out of caftans from the imperial workshops as a kind of merit pay to their most loyal or skilled followers. (Savvy courtiers would return the favour by giving deluxe fabrics to a royal child on his circumcision day.) On important holidays, the poor could receive valuable robes as a form of primitive and entirely discretional welfare. When the sultans increased or cut their regular textile procurements -- the court used silk robes by the thousands -- it must have been like Central Bank shifting interest rates. Employment and finances must have been affected across the whole economy. 1503 registers mentions the number of caftan allocations to Beyazit II used for member of the sultan’s family, ambassadors, vizirs and high bureaucrats, some artisans and spies were paid by precious caftans.

Sultanic kaftans were worth more than their weight in silk and gold. Tremendous value was added to them by the fine craft and engineering skills they required, and which few other cultures had. Whole teams of experts, from thread guys to patternmakers to loom specialists, worked on each court garment.

Where did the material come from?

The silkworm was concealed in a hollow bamboo reed and smuggled from China into the West by missionaries during the reign of Justinian in the 6th Century. Breeding of silkworm only started in 16th Century in the Ottoman Empire . Before the silk cocoon was imported from Iran . The first major center for the Ottoman silk industry was Bursa , situated on the Silk Road, in North-western Turkey , which in the16th Century became one of the richest cities in the world.  Because of the increasing demands of the court for silk fabrics, Istanbul also became an important center for manufacture. The artisan’s workshops were installed at the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace , a way also to control closely the silk production. Various taxes were levied on silk and the production was kept under very strict government control with the Law relating Bursa guilds and markets of 1502.

 As caftans were used to remunerate people, they were part of the court’s financial system thus it was very important to control the costs and keep them low, while preserving the quality and eliminating irregularities of the production.

The Ottomans, in turn, imported fur and ermine to line and adorn their outer garments. They also greatly admired Italian silks, especially velvets, which they imported in great quantity. Many Italian silks were made especially for the Turkish market, where they were fashioned primarily into royal robes. Locally produced velvet was reserved primarily for cushion or floor coverings because the quality was not considered high enough for imperial robes.

How were they produced?

The Nakkashane formed the center for all the various types of artistic activity in the Palace. Motives were created and applied in all various branches of art .The design traced by the Nakkas was interpreted and applied by the actual weavers. However weaving is highly specialised and a design applied to different court arts cannot be directly applied to the textile.

There were two groups of artists in the the court atelier, known as the Rumiyan and the Acemyan.  Rumians are the artists from the Empire and Acemyan ment all foreigners, composed mainly of Iranians and Hungarians. Weavers were Ottoman Christians, mainly Armenians.

The rest of the clothing in society:

Apart from the quality and cost of the fabrics, there was little difference in the styles or articles of dress between rich and poor, nor between those of Muslims and non-Muslims. Women’s caftans likewise had round necks. Styles that had low round or square necklines or under the bust date to the late 18th Century. 16th Century caftans did not expose the bosom .Women also wore a shorter hip to thigh length caftan called hirka under or sometimes over a full-length caftan. Women tended to wear wrist length sleeves, with short sleeves only on the outer garment. They did not seem to wear ankle length sleeves at all.

Early 17th Century illustrations depict women with decorative flared turned-back cuffs, which be easily achieved by buttoning the sleeve differently at the wrist. It seems likely this was also a 16th century practice. Sleeves split all the way to the elbow and hanging open did not come into fashion until the18th Century. Women’s caftans did not seem to have the overlapping triangular front gores of the men’s caftans: however, these gores are present on a surviving outer caftan from the Topkapi Palace Museum . Women’s caftans seem to have been tailored quite close to the body. Several 17th century illustrations depict caftans being worn fastened with only every third or fourth button enabling an opening to show off the fabric of the hirka underneath. It is probable this was also a 16th century practice.

Its influence in Europe and religious connotation

Earlier times European heard a great deal about Turkish textile. Venetians had very good taste, and recognized these textiles and served in the hands of the painters such as   Carpaccio, Bellinis, Titian, Giorgione. Textiles were very easily shipped and brought in vast amounts in 15th and 16th Century. Europeans didn’t know these costumes but Venetian merchants were going to the East. Also with Florentines, during Medici period, very close commercial relations were formed between the 2 countries.

Ottoman silks, both in raw and finished states, were coveted luxury items exported o Europe, the Balkans, Poland , and especially to Russia , the empire's largest market. Most were fashioned into ecclesiastical garments, such as chasubles and copes. Those reserved for the Russian Orthodox Church are notable for their inclusion of religious figural imagery and were produced in Turkey by local weavers as no loom technology in Russia in 16th Century was set yet.  The center of patriartic church was in Istanbul and Istanbul became center of the textile production for the orthodox world.

Ottoman silk had no religious significance in the empire. Wearing of silk is forbidden in Islamic world; therefore it had only a secular importance. However it became part of the religious rituals outside its own world. Islamic textiles were used as the coronation robe of the Holy Roman emperors for many centuries. The Schatzkammer, treasury of Habsburg in Vienna is a proof of that many roman emperors were crowned in Islamic textile. Coronation robe of Roger the 2nd has Arabic inscriptions reading long life to the emperor. Ivan the terrible was crowned in 1540 in a Turkish textile.

In Fashion:

- Europeans used to dress up in eastern customs, dressed up a la turca

-19th Century man’s fashion began influenced by oriental costumes. Man put on silk robes, and slippers at home to indulge an oriental way, smoking cigarettes in late afternoon and evening.

- Mariano Fortuny used to design velvet robes to ornate his Delphos dresses for evening outings. Paul Poiret at the beginning of the 20th Century was famous for his caftans. Yves Saint Laurent brought back the taste of caftans into the haute couture in 1970s.

Sources :

Topkapi Sarayi Costumes et Tissu Brodée- Topkai Sarayi Muzesi

The Art of Turkish Weaving, Nevbar Gursu, 1988

Turkish Textiles, Tahsin Ot

Silk, Ahmet Altug

Topkapi a Versailles, Exhibition Catalogue, 1999

Style and Status, Smithsonian Institute, Exhibition Catalogue, 2006

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