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Turkish belly dancers may be the most scantily clad on the planet, but historically the clothing worn in the Ottoman Empire was designed to cope with wide swings in temperature as well as exhibit opulent modesty. Ottoman garments make excellent folkloric costuming for family-friendly venues or for dancers who do not wish to bare their torsos.
William Alexander, writing in The Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Turks in 1802:
Her beauty, according to European ideas, would consists chiefly in her face; as the immoderate use of the warm bath, together with their mode of life, and manner of sitting, completely destroys all elegance of form, while the situation of the girdle, unlike the Grecian style, increases this appearance even to a disgusting excess. If it were not for this circumstance, the manner of dress would by no means be so unbecoming or inelegant.
In short, the cosmopolitan and far-ranging Wm. Alexander was addicted to the silouette produced by the upper-middle-class Western women's addiction to corsets.
However, Turkish dress was both more opulent and more comfortable than European dress, and it became very fashionable for European women to dress a la Turque after Lady Mary Wortley Montagu accompanied her husband to Turkey in the early eighteen century and began sending home letters which were published in the fashionable press. While in Turkey, she recorded an amusing incident at the women's baths during which a group of Turkish women, aghast at her restrictive ungarments, decided that her corsets were some kind of machine that her husband had locked her into.
The lady that seemed the most considerable amongst them entreated me to sit by her and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused my self with some difficulty, they being all so earnest in persuading me. I was at last forced to open my skirt and shew them my stays, which satisfied em very well, for I saw they believed I was so locked up in that machine that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband.
Many European noblewomen sat for portraits of themselves dressed in Turkish, or Turkish-like, finery. Taking into account Alexander's disdain for the uncorseted Turkish ladies, it is unlikely that the Western women used the Turkish style as an excuse to shed all their under-armor; but we may hope that a few, at least, pulled the strings less tightly!
Sultana of the beginning 19th century by Octavian Dalvimart
Turkish pants, female, by Tilke
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Author: Maura Enright
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Last updated Jan 2016.
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