Out of Turkey: Sultans of Bling

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005

Imagine the president of the United States in a floor-length kaftan made of the finest crimson silk, with golden orbs and tiger stripes brocaded into it with 18-karat thread. The outfit could stand for the shining splendor of democracy, for the wealth and glory it spreads around the globe and for the courage it takes to protect it.

It's not a likely scene. Americans have always worried about investing a single citizen with anything like kingly trappings, no matter how completely his power is supposed to come from them.

The Ottoman Turks, who ruled much of the eastern Mediterranean for almost 500 years -- they were a superpower, in arms and trade, from the Renaissance until the First World War -- didn't have such hesitations. Two centuries before Louis XIV stood in Versailles announcing that "l'tat, c'est moi," the sultans in Constantinople (later Istanbul) had already made themselves into their state.

They dressed the part, spectacularly. One of them wore the very kaftan I've imagined our chief being hailed in. That robe is part of a stunning new show of court silks that presents some of the most impressive outfits worn by anyone, anywhere, ever. It's called "Style and Status: Imperial Costumes From Ottoman Turkey," and it opened Saturday at the Smithsonian's Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. Its fusty title doesn't capture the range and depth of pleasures it provides. It's the first full survey of these textiles ever, anywhere, and few of them have even left Turkey before. Most of them are four or five centuries old. Many of them look brand-new.

If the sultans spent so much of their nation's wealth on clothes, it must have been so that their costume would convey the glory of their rule. They were successful. I'd be tempted to bow to anyone who wore what they did: There's one black silk kaftan, with a writhing mass of flowers woven into it in gold, blue, yellow, cream and red, that is considered one of the greatest textiles ever made.

If I were one of the crown princes waiting for old Dad to die, I'd conspire with the worst of them to have a chance at putting on a sultan's robes: Even the plainest kaftan at the Sackler, made from a rippling mass of crimson satin, sets me scheming. I want it.

What's the point of fighting for power today? It brings only headaches. In Ottoman days, it brought a wardrobe worth killing for.

We can still take the measure of that wardrobe thanks to the large number of imperial outfits that survive, in nearly pristine condition, in Istanbul's royal palace -- now a museum -- of Topkapi. A team led by Nurhan Atasoy, one of Turkey's leading scholars, has conducted a 12-year study of the best early Ottoman textiles, from Topkapi but also from collections around the world. This show, as well as the publications that go with it, are built around the many facts and new insights that have come out of that research. (If even the most well-heeled of us can't afford sultanic silks, Atasoy's deluxe $200 book about them is one possible substitute. There's also a $50 abridgement of it, and a lovely $12.95 handbook to the Sackler show.)

More than two dozen of the exhibition's robes come from Topkapi.

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 to be treated cavalierly. Their kaftans were not simply unusually fancy garments, worn for a while to keep out the cold, then handed down for some other toff to use. When a sultan died, his precious clothes were preserved with nearly as much reverence as the ruler's body.

A sultan's majestic robes didn't simply stand for the majesty of his position at the helm of state. Those kaftans were also symbols of the absurd 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 kaftans 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 kaftans from the imperial workshops as a kind of merit pay to their most loyal or skilled followers. (Savvy courtiers would return the favor 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 Alan Greenspan shifting interest rates. Employment and finances must have been affected across the whole economy.

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. But even knowing that, it's hard to imagine how some of these mind-boggling textiles could ever have been made before the days of mechanized weaving or computer-controlled looms -- impossible to picture mere human hands at wooden looms crafting the flawless tangle of blooms that covers a length of cloth brought to this show from Washington's own Textile Museum, or the immaculate 9-by-16-foot silk rug, in red and green velvet with the finest gold brocade, lent by the Detroit Institute of Arts. A sultan out in public in his robes was showing off his nation's highest tech.

Atasoy draws attention to the finely woven but large-scale motifs carefully centered on the sides of sultanic trousers; she notes how these would have been especially visible to bystanders kept at a safe remove -- behind security "fences" also made of ornate silks -- as the ruler rode by on parade. That fits with one of the most striking features of Ottoman textile design: its bold patterns. For every cloth that shows off a dense interlace, there's another one, just as gorgeous in the end, that's a plain field of color with a few repeated forms. Many kaftans display trademark Ottoman designs -- logos, almost -- such as the sultans' "cintamani" motif with its orbs and tiger stripes, or Turkey's famous tulips and carnations that march across the surface. 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.

All this talk of power and economics, of status and symbolic effect, is well and good, but it shouldn't distract from the central function of these objects: to look as beautiful as any artwork possibly can. Only the outrageously good looks of these objects let them go on to fulfill other social functions -- to be worth so much, in cash or symbolism. When an Ottoman ruler insisted that everyone attending on him, from little kids to visiting ambassadors to grand viziers, be dressed in exquisite silks from his own looms, it may have been intended to show their dependence on his largess, and how they were merely ornaments to his imperial magnificence. Or even to kick-start the economy. But it must also have been to craft an aesthetic whole of stunning beauty -- to turn the colorful living court into a kind of macrocosmic version of the splendid intricacies seen, in microcosm, in its finest brocades.

Writing in the 1550s, one European ambassador to Constantinople complained about the poor costume of courtiers back home, compared with their Ottoman counterparts.

Leaving the Sackler show, you feel that doubly now: The leaders we've chosen, in their blue suits and red ties, barely count as being clothed.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company