Mirror, mirror on the wall; who is wearing the fairest one of all? .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} ISTANBUL - In Ottoman times caftans were robes not just worn every day but for special occasions such as religious ceremonies or special audiences such as those with foreign ambassadors. The Ottoman sultans’ caftans were open in the front with slashed sides and fur linings, pockets, long sleeves and buttons of precious stones. The wearing of sumptuous robes with elaborate designs has long been the sign of rank and power.

Can you imagine an Ottoman sultan twirling around in a brand new caftan and asking his attendants how they found it? Undoubtedly they would have replied, "Yes it is the fairest of them all." Of course they could hardly say anything else without risking their jobs. But the caftans the Ottoman sultans wore were truly splendid.

The wearing of sumptuous robes or other forms of decoration has long been the sign of rank and as such what one could wear was closely regulated. That seems to have been true from the most ancient of times. Headgear, clothes, clothes’ length, shoes, materials and even colors were often subject to strict rules governed by rank, **** ethnicity, religion and geographical location. An elaborately embroidered robe sent from one ruler to another would be a welcome gift.

The garment as we know it probably originated in Iran since the word caftan or as it is sometimes spelled kaftan is Persian. This would lend credence to the garment’s origin. One can see the caftan in the miniature paintings that come from Iran of the Middle Ages.

The most fascinating of caftans are those preserved in Topkapı Palace Museum, thanks to the practice of saving the clothing worn by a sultan. As well the clothes of the various princes were preserved but none of the women of the harem regardless of rank. There are examples of some 2500 caftans at Topkapı.

What is the caftan?
The caftan is made of two lengths of cloth that run from the back of the neck to just above a show or at least not touching the floor. The two lengths are then cut at what will be top in order to form the neck opening, which also has to have reinforcing material for the neck opening. Then one needs to stitch the top of the two lengths together and after this, the sides are sewn up and the bottom hemmed but not before the material has been embroidered with designs.

The materials generally used today are cotton or cotton polyester mix and makes a light and flowing gown for hotter climates such as the Mediterranean area. In some countries this garment is only worn by men although there is no reason why it can’t be worn by both sexes. Usually it would be worn over one’s sleeping garments.

Caftans among the Ottomans
In Ottoman times these caftans were robes not just worn every day but for special occasions such as religious ceremonies or special audiences such as those with foreign ambassadors.

The garments readied for the use of the Ottoman sultan would have been made in the Ottoman imperial workshops that were actually within the Topkapı Palace complex. This allowed an exchange of ideas between the sultan and his attendants and the tailors who would make the caftan and those who embroidered the designs.

The sultan would have had his measurements taken occasionally and then a pattern drawn on paper. That way there would be no reason to bother the sultan over fittings. Once agreed upon, the master tailor could give the cutting of the material to his assistants or his apprentices while he supervised them. The stitching of the designs on the material could then proceed before the pieces would be sewn together. [If they had only known about computers!]

Designs also would be drawn on paper and then applied to the material once the choice of colors and thread was decided upon. No one would have dared to make a mistake. One should add at this point that the Ottoman sultans were all taught a skill, whether it was woodworking or writing poetry or composing music, artistic talent ran through all of the sultans. So it wouldn’t have been surprising if he caught the smallest of mistakes after the caftan was finished.

Embroidery on the caftans was often around the collar or the neck opening, sleeve openings and the border on the bottom and contain all of the familiar motifs that are familiar from other items that have been embroidered. Some of these were simple oval forms such as pomegranates or artichokes, leaf and flower forms and mixed flowers. These might be repeated at fixed intervals along the openings that they bordered. Of course all sorts of designs might go out of style, and as Macide Gönül writes in her book on Turkish embroidery, "The tulip is found less often in the 17th century, and when found its form is different; the carnation, on the other hand, is more frequent." Border designs are usually running designs of leaves, simple flowers and vines intertwined.

The earliest caftans are very simple in design but these change as the centuries passed. Throughout however we see red as a predominate color even in the earliest caftans known. In the early period of the Ottoman Empire (15th century) red, blue and green were the most important colors. But from the 16th century ten or more colors might be used and different shades within each of the colors. So the caftans go from colored to colorful. Perhaps the reason for this is that the dyes had become more sophisticated and widespread or because the growth and expansion of the Ottoman Empire led to weaving becoming a professional branch of art that met the needs of the palace and the urban population. The sultan always had to be the fashion setter in such a colorful society as that of Istanbul as the capital of the Ottoman Empire just as a good hostess has to be better dressed than any of her guests.

The material would have been of silk, silk brocades, velvets, satins, broadcloths and silk velvets and silk cotton with linings of sable and ermine. The main supplier of silk materials to the Ottoman court was Bursa. Silk worms had been smuggled out of China and brought to Byzantium in 552 AD. Although it isn’t known exactly when sericulture started in Bursa, the Turks took to it with pleasure and soon turned into a thriving business. It is even mentioned in the Seyahatname (Travel Book) of the famous 17th century travel writer Evliya Celebi. And to this day many customs are still followed by those who raise silk worms including praying over the worm eggs and various other ceremonies. The thread that also went into the weaving varied depending upon the type of material being used.

As for the Ottoman sultans’ caftans, they were open in front with slashed sides and fur linings, pockets, long sleeves and buttons of precious stones.

Sometimes they had collars and sometimes not. They might also be padded with cotton to protect the sultan against the cold. And they might even be worn under another garment with their sleeves shortened. There also would be a long second sleeve hanging from the shoulder that added to the magnificence of the garment but also allowed the sultan to extend his hand to be kissed without risking contact with the kisser.

The wealth and importance that the Ottoman sultans’ caftans represented were so great that it would have been considered an important gift to receive such a gift. And who could refuse such a magnificent gift?