One of the reasons men are wedded to the security of a suit lies in its ability to give virtually any slope-shouldered gentleman the imposing V-shaped torso of an athlete. Women continue to endure the discomfort of high heels because they appreciate the additional few inches in height they gain. And the woman who wears a room-filling ball gown not only is certain that there will be attendants to see after her needs, but also is attracted to the attention that comes from taking up so much space.
Physical grandeur can be good for the psyche, making one feel more confident and more certain of one's right to rule. The ways in which clothing enhances individual authority and prominence are explored in an exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, "Style & Status: Imperial Costumes From Ottoman Turkey." The exhibition, which runs through Jan. 22, looks at the dazzling ancient textiles of the Ottoman empire and the Brobdingnagian caftans and trousers worn by the sultans.
As a piece of history, the exhibition is both fascinating and breathtaking. But it is even more compelling because it reminds contemporary viewers that the desire to express clout through public presentation has always been part of the human experience.
The exhibition opened at the end of October, with a gala attended by several Turkish designers whose work draws from Ottoman history. Designer Atil Kutoglu informally presented pieces from his spring 2006 collection, "Ottomania," as well as several other garments that had been inspired by the ancient caftans. It was an opportunity to bridge the divide between assumptions about Turkish culture and its reality, and a chance to underscore the link between the past and the present.
Kutoglu grew up in Istanbul, studied in Germany and eventually established his business in Vienna. His clothes have strong lines, sometimes bold colors and judicious flourishes of embroidery and prints. "My Turkish roots have been a strong force, but Vienna taught me to be -- not to be too kitschy, to be more geometric. It gave me a more puristic view of fashion."
The strongest link between past and present, however, lies in the eternal fascination with social stature. The Ottoman caftans convey authority through size and simplicity, noted designer Gonul Paksoy in an e-mail after the exhibition's opening. (Paksoy is known for her elaborate manipulation of fabrics and her use of color.) These are not merely elaborate costumes or examples of aesthetic bravado that might be more eloquently displayed elsewhere. In some ways, size is more important than finesse.
While some of the robes have complex patterns woven into them, others are quite minimal in design and are meant to convey their message about power succinctly and to the lowliest citizen at the back of the crowd. These garments have much in common with today's status handbags and saucer-size designer watches.
After showing his collections for years in Paris, Kutoglu switched his seasonal showings to New York about four years ago. American fashion, he says, "is not too dreamy or too exaggerated. Americans have a realistic approach to fashion.
"I've always dreamed of a career like Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren."
No two names in American fashion have more of a connection to the idea of style as a way to show power and wealth, as a form of intimidation and as a kind of social and political currency. Ralph Lauren's aesthetic world is founded on the idea that clothing functions as a nonverbal announcement of lineage, prestige and social hierarchy. In the same way that the Ottomans appropriated tulip patterns and the cintamani design of three circles, Lauren absconded with the generic image of a polo player atop his pony.
Massumeh Farhad, the Sackler's chief curator, says the Ottomans practically invented the concept of a logo. "One of the most identifiable combinations was the tulip and vine motif with long elegant leaves. It was very distinct," she says. The cintamani motif "was not a new symbol, but the Ottomans took it over. Whenever you saw cintamani designs, you'd think 'Ottoman.' "
It would be a stretch to describe anything about the Ottomans as understated, but like modern fashion empires such as that built by minimalist Calvin Klein, they were adept at creating a signature, a visual image that was unmistakable. In the same way that the Ottomans declared a garment special, grander, more important because it bore their insignia, Calvin Klein put his name on a pair of bluejeans and bestowed them with cachet that can be read quickly and from afar.
These Ottoman costumes dazzle the eye while they make their pronouncements about power. And one could certainly imagine the tulips and vines and cintamani motifs used in some contemporary context. (The designer Oscar de la Renta was mesmerized by their beauty during a recent visit.) But it doesn't matter whether some Seventh Avenue designer finds direct inspiration in the exhibition. Every time the fashion industry talks about branding, about "it" handbags and aspirational style, the Ottomans deserve a nod of recognition.