We condemn the war and support Ukraine in its struggle for democratic values.
We also encourage you to join the #StandWithUkraine movement by making a donation at this link
The Ottoman Empire Review


In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was declining and decaying. This was in spite of its rich history as a successful state. At its stage of decay, it was greatly influenced by European civilization. It was during the century that ottoman intellectuals started learning about Europe. The learning experience was through interaction with the Europeans, the reading of literary translations, and most importantly, individual experiences abroad. As awareness of the decline in the Ottoman Empire grew, various scholars tried to find ways of preventing its further disintegration. In seeking this solution, they turned to Europe. (Mardin 2000)

They sought to find out the issues that could be learnt from there. Almost all of them came to the conclusion that some recipe for success could be derived from the experience. They came up with differing approaches to the solution. However, the shared trend in their approaches was that they considered it important to transfer some material aspects of their rival’s culture into their own civilization.

Challenge Faced by Intellectuals

Ottoman intellectuals encountered one main challenge in the reviewing of European civilization and incorporating its elements into their own. The effective combination of European and ottoman cultures was a major issue of concern. The Ottomans tended to have a monolithic viewpoint on the matter. (Mardin 2000) There was therefore the choice between either totally accepting or rejecting the influence. There was also a third option which was proffered and mainly accepted by a large number of Ottoman intellectuals in the nineteenth century. According to XX, the third option suggested that European civilization needed to be perceived as an aggregate of moral and material elements. The taking up of material elements was considered incapable of creating problems for the Ottomans. This was because they did not require adopting European values and these were feared because they were considered inappropriate for the local culture.

One of the concerned intellectuals was Cevdet Pasa (1823-1895). He was opposed to the idea of existence of only one civilization, the European one. This was what the modernist scholars of the time sought to believe.  According to him, Islamic civilization was just one among many others present. He therefore recommended the taking up of some material elements of the civilization if the empire was to be revived. Material elements would not necessarily affect the uniqueness of the Ottoman society.  Another scholar, Ahmet Mithat Efendi (1844-1912) had an admiration of Europe, where he had been. However, he also offered ideas similar to pasa’s in relation to the moral and material elements. He distinguished the European kind of civilization as having two parts; the idea and technology. Technology would represent external progress while the idea represented internal progress. The internal aspect was difficult to take up due to the uniqueness of respective civilizations.

Munif Pasa (1830-1910) also addressed the issue of adopting technology. He recommended the adoption of European material aspects. He considered technology, for instance telegram, photography and newspapers as important in the attempt to alleviate the problems facing the empire. They were elements of modernization that had to be embraced. Namik Kemal (1840-1888) on his part criticized the Ottoman approacvh to development. He argued that while Europe continuously worked to improve their future, The Ottomans simply lived in the present. They were however categorical that the moral elements had to be left aside.

The Three Elements of Material Culture

Three main components of European civilization were identified as being worth considering. The first of these was dress. Apart from technological development, some of the intellectuals viewed dress as an important material element that needed to be adopted. Dress was generally a sensitive topic in the society. This was because it had attached some religious value to a number of dresses. Changing the dressing styles of the population therefore proved to be difficult. In spite of this, Mahmud II (1808-1839) managed to implement dress reform as one of the most effective and significant measures in reviving the empire.

Dress also emerged as an important issue for Omer Efendi. He was the Mayor of Istanbul between 1861 and 1876. He visited Europe in 1867 and notably started comparing European and Ottoman civilizations mainly using dress. According to him, while they had adorned and high quality dresses, European clothing had greater simplicity and comfort.

The second aspect was the city. The English word civilization and its ottoman translation- Medeniyet are derivatives of the city as a concept. Upon exposure, Ottoman intellectuals therefore felt that tidy, well-planned and clean cities were necessities if a group was to be considered civilized. An example of this perspective was provided by  Cenap Sehabettin. According to him, city was equivalent to civilization. He talked ill of peasant villages and the life there.  (Craig, A. and Kagan 2008) He considered such life as being inferior to that of urban areas. In his journeys through various capitals in Europe, he went through several villages in Bulgaria and concluded that it was a peasant’s dream to live a city life, hence get civilized.

The final element is the museum. Virtually every Ottoman intellectual who had the chance to go through the capitals in Europe suggested the setting up of a museum within the Ottoman Empire’s capital.  An example of these was Ahmet Mithat Efendi. After visiting a museum in Stockholm, he suggested the need for creating a museum in Istanbul. Here, all forms of weapons, tents, weapons and costumes could be placed on exhibition. Having such a museum would be important in confirming a rich ottoman heritage.  Celal Nuri (1877-1938) on his part was critical of the ottomans as a society. He accused it of not giving antiquity its deserved value and thus considered it as lacking a sense of conservation.

Cultural Borrowing in Material Elements

One of the most significant areas in cultural borrowing that characterized 19th century Ottomans and Europe was in dress. Clothes were generally reflective of both cultural values and tastes that existed in the respective societies. The basic characteristic of European clothing at the time was its revealing of more body contours as compared to that from the ottomans. During the early years of the Medieval period, both female and male garments tended to be laced on their upper parts. While women’s gowns tended to have modest skirting at the ankles, male clothes tended to be short, displaying well-turned legs and had encasings of either laced or closely fitted hose.  (Craig, A. and Kagan 2008).

There was initially the wearing of many layers of clothing, especially for festive or ceremonial dressing. It was a sign of status and wealth. The importance of layering is founded on cultural aspects. With the adoption of Islam, there was the taking up of Islamic dressing, which could very easily be distinguished from that of non-Muslims. Men wore turbans and women veiling. Within the Ottoman society that was multi-religious and multi-ethnic, dressing acted as a marker of religious affiliation.The dressing forms remained unchanged throughout the century. This was especially in the case of men, except in headgear. Among women, the basic features of dress remained unchanged, although there were slight changes in accessories, materials and silhouette.

Contacts between Europeans and Ottomans were very extensive. Trade was an important avenue through which cultural exchange and therefore influence of dress codes. Ottomans who went to Europe were rather less. However, their numbers rose after the 18th century. Dress and textiles were not the only items of culture that were borrowed across the two groups during the nineteenth century. There were also influences on music, architectural designs and furnishing. These were in addition to exchanges in artistic, literary, technological and culinary ideas.  Craig, A. and Kagan, D. (2008).

In terms of clothing, Nineteenth century Ottoman homes were testing grounds for social innovation. Women would first try out new clothing designs within the private confines of their homes. Although this was not a uniquely ottoman characteristic, it also did not apply everywhere, most notably in Europe.

During the eighteenth and early years of the nineteenth century, Ottoman women within the residences would wear baggy pants, known as Shalvar, in combination with flowing, three-skirted dresses while I the household. During the time, in Europe, the women highly valued corsets, which were meant to enhance thin-waisted looks. The trend was also adopted in the Ottoman Empire, with corsets being worn with puffy skirts that were the trend in Europe. Hairstyles in Europe included chignon hairstyles to go with the fashionable dresses.  Craig, A. and Kagan, D. (2008).

After experimenting with the new designs, Ottoman women took the styles out to the public. However, in their case there was their concealment with long-skirted veils which covered almost their entire bodies. With time, the veils were transformed to an impression of European female coats. The veil would then become increasingly transparent. Unlike in Europe, it is not only fashions that underwent their testing within households. Other forms of social innovation also took the same path. For instance, there was experimentation with the practice of having gender-based segregation of socialization before adoption in the outside world. Craig, A. and Kagan, D. (2008)

The implication of the similarity of Ottoman dressing to western trends has for some time been the subject of debate. There is the view that it was an example of westernization trends within the society. It was therefore part of an effort to look more like Europeans. However, this perspective is not easily sustainable. For example, it would be difficult to understand the use of textiles from India within the Ottoman Empire during the century, if that was the case. It would be interesting if someone asked whether the ottomans were attempting to become Indian.

There is the possible view that the taking up of western dressing styles was a rather complex issue. It was not really a way of trying to integrate themselves into the western ways. Rather, it was a component of a more widespread civilizing process that occurred in the nineteenth century. Through wearing cutaway coats and lace dresses in line with the fashion trends in France, Ottomans were trying to identify their own modernity and social differentiation. They were trying to communicate the fact that they belonged to the new rather than old system and that they had an element of social superiority to their country folk who did not take up the new fashions.

During the nineteenth century, there was the attempt to separate male and female spaces in homes. (Quataer 2005). This was more common in urban areas where spatial layouts of homes tended to be more accommodative to the gender spaces as compared to rural ones. In many urban homes there was a mainly male space referred to as the Selamlik area. The oldest male within the household was entitled to use this room. It was placed in the centre and had other independent rooms besides it, but lacked corridors to link them to one another.

Prior to the nineteenth century, furnishings comprised of pillows. These were placed on raised platforms. The pillows were then leant against walls. The people within the house would sit on the pillows that were on matted or carpeted floors. While eating, they would gather around big trays which were placed about one foot above the ground. They then ate using their hands from the shared large dishes. (Quataer 2005). Among the wealthy Ottomans, there was the eating of meat which was cut into tiny pieces. The rooms in houses were generally multi-purpose. The entertainment sections of both female and male areas would be used as bedrooms in the night. There was modest furnishing of houses.

According to Kinross (1989) In the early years of the nineteenth century, there was the introduction of a number of changes. Wealthy homes started being characterized by goods originating from London and Paris. These included chairs, tables, forks, knives and fireplaces that used English coal. As at the end of the century, there was the presence of bedsteads, tables, chairs and beds in many of the areas of the empire. With the introduction of the new furniture, there was the transformation of the functions of the domestic spaces. Those that were initially multipurpose started performing single functions. Separated living rooms, bedrooms and dining rooms came up. These had their own specialized furniture that was not easily movable in order to convert the rooms for other purposes. During the nineteenth century, there occurred a significant transformation in the economic and social lives of Europeans. In the first ten years of the century, virtually all parts of the continent were under Napoleon Bonaparte, France's ruler. Those that were not immediately within his control were under other family members that held control over the empire’s outer regions.

Dress underwent dramatic changes at the time. (Kinross 1989). This was because of changes in tastes and also the adoption of machines in the making of textiles. At the time, there was a major change in clothes such as swimming wear. Although people from a variety of cultures used to bathe in lakes, oceans and rivers for a long time before, in the nineteenth century there was the bringing in and rise of popularity in swimming as a form of leisure and specifically recreation.

In the early nineteenth century, there was a rise in popularity of ruffled collars and gathered lace. This was called the Betsey. It was an updated form of ruff made of starched linen that had been very popular in the sixteenth century. As the ruff reemerged in the case of England, it comprised of a simpler and smaller lace strip that was assembled and tied at the neck using a simple drawstring.

National features in clothing styles had experienced a constant decline as from around. Unlike in the Ottoman therefore, as at 1800, such influence had dropped to negligible levels. As from the time designs for fashionable clothes took up an international characteristic. European feminine clothes gained an increasingly French influence. Masculine designs got their shared influence from London. It was believed that English gentlemen were considered the ideal best-dressed people in Europe. The leaders in this trend included elegant fashion enthusiasts such as Beau Brummell. Brummell’s clothes were admired and even copied by the later King George IV.

Between 1811 and 1820, English modes of dressing among men got universal acceptance as the correct ones, including in France. For instance, the top hat gained a virtually universal appreciation. Male dressing became highly stereotyped. There were already set etiquette-related rules of the appropriate attire that could be put on at different times and occasions. There were also unwritten rules regarding the best dress for various times of day and social classes. There was an immense popularity of the tailcoat, which had a waist and padding on its chest section. It was worn together with tight trousers referred to as pantaloons and a waistcoat. The pantaloons had buckles at the ankle although this later changed to beneath the instep. (Walker 1997).

The dominance of French designs was on the other hand the most significant in the 19th century. Designs from Paris both accessories and garments got considerable publicity across Europe. This was because of the rise in prominence of fashion journals and plates. These had their origins France and England. However, as from 1850 onwards, they could be found in about every European country.


During the nineteenth century, the survival of the Ottoman Empire was an important issue for scholars in the region. They all sought to stop the decline of the once great empire. Upon fixing this challenge, they wanted a permanent solution. They believed that there was something that had facilitated Europe’s development and their own country’s decline. Many of them had a chance to travel to Europe. From their experience, they believed that there was much to be borrowed in their culture. (Walker1997). However, considering the trends that were there, they believed that only the material and technological components of culture were adaptable. They considered the moral aspect as being inapplicable due to the different cultural settings. Dressing, maintenance of cities and establishment of museums were therefore recommended as ways of strengthening the empire

Order now

Related essays