The Admiration Enrapping Europe

Written by Alex Akimoğlu

A new movement was born in Europe during the 16th century once the admiration of Europe towards the ”exotic” lifestyle of the Ottomans was fused with the orientalist artists´ works and dressing up like a Turk was all a statement of fashion.

The commercial, political and cultural relations between the Ottoman Empire and Europe goes back a long way in history. While the voyagers and artists travelled to the lands of the Ottomans and illustrated what they observed within their drawings and notes, increasing the interest and curiosity of the Europeans towards the west, the Ottomans, on the other hand, had gradually turned their faces towards the western civilisations. The movements of change taking place in Europe during the 18th century had influenced the East and had made the lands of the Ottomans ¨an open market¨. With the declaration of the Constitutional Monarchy during the 19th century, this movement became more evident, more and more reflected within the perceptions of education, lifestyle and the sense of fashion.

Many years ago, we had undertaken an archival research to analyse the mutual relations and influences between 18th and 19th century France and the Ottoman Empire, which was supposed to turn into an exhibition held at the Musée Galliera in Paris. However, the planned project could not be implemented at the time. Amongst all of the documents we had analysed at the Topkapı Palace and many other museums and institutions both in Istanbul and Paris, I was affected mostly by a specific item: it was the order forms belonging to women of the Ottoman Harem, which were left behind by French tailors, with pinned pieces of materials and notes of measurements.

Having the chance of studying the kaftan and harem attires belonging to the era at the time in which the “Turquerie” movement in France was prevalent, had given me a sense of exhilaration. Paris, which had influenced the world as the capital of modernity and fashion during the 18th and 19th centuries, continues to hold this title even today. Just like the many philosophers and artists, who had swarmed Paris from all corners of the world in order to better express themselves and with the purpose of learning freedom, I also arrived at the “capital city of fashion” in 1976 in order to be trained in fashion. Mr Pierre Cardin, who had presented me with the opportunity to experience this world as a fashion designer during my first collection, had said the following words to me: “You have arrived here leaving behind the culture of the Ottoman Empire and a mystical city such as Istanbul. Now, create your style while keeping their value in mind but thinking of Paris”. Paris and Istanbul. Just like all the French-speaking artists, who are in love with both of these cities, there is absolutely no way for me to forget either of them.

The inspiration stemming from the Turkish arts and culture, which had begun in Western Europe and specifically in France during the 16th century, had reached its peak during the 18th century. The developing trade relations, and the memories of ambassadors and tradesmen upon their return to their countries, had become the reason for the birth of the movement of the “Turquerie”.

The curiosity towards the unknown exotic lifestyle of the East, became a topic of interest amongst the European aristocracy and intellectual circles once it fused with the French imagination. All of the notes and imaginary drawings about the mystery of the Harem and its women had given birth amongst the affluent society to “a new movement”. The use of sofas, divans, carpets at the invitations held in castles and palaces and dressing up like a Turk – in other words, being ”a la turca” – was all a statement of fashion. The canvasses made by the artist Charles Van Loo of Madame Pompadour and Madame du Barry – the mistresses of King Louis IV., dressed as women of the harem and posing as “an Ottoman sultan”, had gained much attention amongst the aristocracy of Europe and had eventually influenced many artists in other European countries, particularly those in England. Alphonse de Lamartine, one of the most famous names in romantic literature, and Pierre Loti, had become deeply affected during their journeys to Istanbul and had produced many works, promoting Turkey their own countries. On the other hand, the Ottomans had also increased their interest in westernisation towards the final years of the empire, and had always displayed efforts of learning French, sending their children to France for an education and having a French-speaking generation.

The Ottoman-European relations, which had taken a different turn following the Treaty of Karlowitz, had entered “a stage of relaxation”, and apart from political competitiveness, a mutual interest of values had surfaced. Since the 18th century, Ottoman executives had initiated various reforms within administrative, social and cultural affairs. This initiation was the beginning of the Ottomans’ desire of westernisation. Sultan Ahmet III decided to send the first temporary ambassador, Mehmet Efendi, to France in 1719.

The deep culture and personality of Mehmet Efendi had influenced the French intensely and the relations between the countries had entered into a different dimension. France had taken the lifestyle, art, and dresscode of the Ottomans and became inspired by it. While the son of Mehmet Efendi, Young Said Efendi, who had gone to Paris as ambassador in 1742, had put in much effort for the continuation of the warm and close relations between both countries. During his posting as an ambassador, Said Efendi was able to draw attention with his diplomacy as well as his grace and character.

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Alex Akimoğlu

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