Introduced in the nineteenth century to modernize Ottoman fashion, the fez came to represent resistance to change. The processes by which this shift occurred reveal the dynamism and complexity of the late Ottoman society.

For ninety-nine years, between 1826 and 1925, the most recognisable marker of Ottoman identity in fashion was the fez. Almost all of the empire’s notables, and a large portion of its male citizens, wore this truncated cone of coloured felt on their heads. Today it is almost entirely absent from public life in Turkey and the other post-Ottoman states of the Middle East, but it retains some of its symbolic significance. In the West, it has become a shorthand for exoticism – Shriners wear it to cultivate an aura of mystique. For the Ottomans, though, it meant something very different. The meaning of the fez was bound up with the question of what it meant to be Ottoman, at a time when that question was contested as it had never been before. Over the course of its history, the fez served the interests of reformers and reactionaries, changing dramatically from a tool of political modernisation to an emblem of Islamic tradition. These transformations show us how powerful a tool fashion could be in shaping Ottoman society. More broadly, they may help us dispel the enduring myth of Ottoman stagnation and recognise the intense social dynamism of the empire’s last century.

The Sultan’s New Clothes

Like so many cherished national traditions, the fez owed its popularity to the efforts of a nineteenth-century reformer. Sultan Mahmud II was one of a series of modernising Ottoman rulers who worked to end the stagnation into which their state had slumped in the eighteenth century. Conflicts with foreign powers had steadily diminished imperial territory, while populations at the periphery became increasingly difficult to govern. Once the terror of the European powers, the Ottomans’ star appeared to be fading. A major cause of the state’s military and political troubles was its apparent inability to reform itself. The Ottoman status quo had a powerful defender in the Janissary corps; formerly an effective combat unit, the corps had bloated throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a privileged and deeply conservative hereditary clique. Through the constant threat of revolt, the Janissaries acted as a check on sultanic power, defending the interests of a broad contingent of urban subjects but making any serious plans for reform a dead letter. Having been brought to the throne after the defeat of a Janissary coup that left his reform-minded predecessor Selim III murdered, Mahmud knew the power of the corps first-hand (Findley 2010).

It must have been axiomatic to Mahmud that any ambitions he had for reform could only be realised if Janissary opposition were repressed. His opportunity came in June of 1826 when another revolt of the corps broke out in Istanbul. With the support of the Islamic clergy, Mahmud retrieved the banner of the Prophet from the palace’s collection of relics and rallied his artillery and household cavalry. A day of fierce combat broke the fighting strength of the Janissary corps; thousands of its leaders were put to death, and the remains of its institutions were abolished. In Ottoman historiography, the event was known as the “Auspicious Incident”. It was transformative. Given a free hand to implement reforms, Mahmud could set about reshaping Ottoman society. He began by creating a new military formation. The Asakir-i Mansure-i Muhammediye (Victorious Soldiers of Muhammed) wore European-style uniforms, along with a type of red felt skullcap of Moroccan origin that had been brought to the sultan’s attention by naval officers returning from stations in the western Mediterranean and was previously more or less unknown in Istanbul (Quataert 1997, 412). In this way, the fez was formally introduced to the Ottoman core.

Sultan Mahmud had previously worn a turban like Ottoman sultans before him (Fig. 1). The new fez soon became part of Mahmud’s personal image replacing the turban. Within a week of the Auspicious Incident, he appeared in the courtyard of the Topkapı palace, dressed “in the Egyptian fashion” (that is, in Western-style military uniform, in the manner of the Egyptian governor Mehmed Ali), reviewing troops arrayed in “European order”. We learn from an account by the British ambassador at the time that he wore not a turban but “a sort of Egyptian bonnet” on his head – this is the first reference to the fez in connection with the Ottoman government in the nineteenth century (Lane-Poole 1888, 421). As Darin Stephanov has pointed out, the very fact of the sultan’s appearance represented a break with the past (2020, 17-20). Ottoman rulers had traditionally kept their distance both from their subjects and from foreign dignitaries; elaborate rituals of state made them inaccessible and impersonal figures. By presenting himself to be seen in new dress, Mahmud was signalling a break with past styles of sultanic personal rule. Throughout the 1830s, the sultan met with ambassadors directly, crossed public squares on his way to Friday prayers, and even dined with sailors aboard a warship. The new style projected openness, especially to the foreign dignitaries whose governments held increasing power over the Ottoman state.

It also conveyed military prowess. In his public appearances, Mahmud dressed as a soldier; his simple blue uniform and accompanying fez connoted his status as the commander-in-chief of the Ottoman armies at a time when their actual strength was very low. European artists soon captured the new look (Fig. 2). By dressing like his troops, Mahmud made martial prowess part of his public persona The importance of this image to Mahmud’s self-fashioning is evident in the way it dominates visual representations of the sultan produced in the 1830s. Probably no Ottoman ruler until that time had been as frequently the subject of portraiture. Those commissioned early in the decade were the first sultanic images to be publicly displayed in the empire. Distributed in schools and barracks, portraits of Mahmud formed a symbolic connection between the sultan and his subjects – especially his troops, who were expected to salute them as though he were there in the flesh (Mansel 2005, 103-104). The portrait painted in 1839 by Henri-Guillaume Schlesinger and donated to the French government is a fine example of Mahmud’s new iconographic style (Fig. 3). Self-assured and heroic in his uniform and billowing mantle, the sultan rests his hand on a classical column while regiments of fez-wearing soldiers parade in the background. He is every bit the confident European autocrat, his attire both expressing the new model of sultanic authority and binding him to his reformed army. Comparison to figure 1 reveals how dramatically the empire’s self-image was transformed by the sultan’s reforms. 

But the introduction of the fez had significance far beyond the sultan’s person. It represented a profound political transformation that began in the 1830s and continued for decades. In 1829 Mahmud introduced a dramatic reform of Ottoman sumptuary legislation.

A Series of Portraits of the Emperors of Turkey

Fig. 1 - John Young (British, 1755-1825). A Series of Portraits of the Emperors of Turkey, 1815. Hand-colored engraving on paper. New Haven: Yale Center for British Art. Source: Yale Center for British Art

Fountain Figure

Fig. 2 - Artist unknown (South Tyrolean, active around 1800). Fountain Figure, after 1826. Carved and painted wood. Vienna: Volkskunde Museum Wien, ÖMV-Inv.Nr. 39.427. Source: Author

Mahmoud-Khan II, sultan (1785-1839)

Fig. 3 - Henri-Guillame Schlesinger (French, 1814-1893). Mahmoud-Khan II, sultan (1785-1839), 1839. Oil on canvas; 259 x 195 cm. Versailles: Chateau de Versailles, MV 4842. Given to the King, September 1839. Source: Chateau de Versailles

On the surface, this law defining the clothing to be worn by each rank of the civil service was little different from regulations imposed by previous generations of Ottoman rulers. But in a radical break with tradition the proclamation abolished the elaborate codes that had dictated the style of turban to be worn by each class and replaced them with a simple directive: officials of every rank, from the highest to the lowest, would wear the plain fez. Perhaps most importantly, the law applied to Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In a state that had long institutionalised differentiation, Mahmud’s new bureaucrats would be characterised by sameness; communal allegiances and divisions would no longer be legible in their clothing.

This was a transformative gesture towards equality, one Donald Quataert has called a “clothing revolution” (1997, 412). What Mahmud’s decree offered his subjects was the beginnings of a new conception of citizenship based on a “common secular Ottoman identity” (Yilmaz 2013, 23). The beginning of Ottoman political modernity is often dated to the Edict of Gülhane, promulgated on the accension of Sultan Abdülmejid in November of 1839, which essentially declared all imperial subjects equal before the law. The decades that followed were characterised by wide-reaching reforms, known collectively as the Tanzimat (Restructuring) and culminating in the writing of the empire’s first constitution. Significant though these transformations were, Mahmud pre-empted them by a decade. The new sumptuary laws created a visual language of citizenship in which members of all the empire’s confessional communities were equal before the sultan and identified themselves with his state.

A Group Photograph of the Students of the Mekteb-i Mülkiye-yi

Fig. 4 - Abdullah Fréres (Armenian). A Group Photograph of the Students of the Mekteb-i Mülkiye-yi, 1880-1893. Photographic print. Washington: Library of Congress, LOT 9544, no.21. Source: Library of Congress

This vision came to be called Ottomanism. It was realised only incompletely – as indeed was Mahmud’s hat reform. The fez was adopted most enthusiastically by members of the new bureaucratic and professional classes. See, for example, fez-wearing students of the Imperial School of Political Science, reign of Abdülhamid (Fig. 4). Born of the Tanzimat reforms, the new class of bureaucrat-officials were key agents in Ottoman modernisation. The professional classes too responded positively to the fez: see Ottoman doctors, reign of Abdülhamid, in figure 5. It was also widely taken up by non-Muslims, especially in the cities. Effacing the old sumptuary laws that had marked their difference, the fez was a means of symbolic integration into larger Ottoman society for prosperous Christians and Jews. This was an important concern for the Ottoman state, which was struggling to contain the centrifugal forces of national movements among its minorities. The clothing reform of 1829 coincided with the victory of the Greeks in their war of independence against the empire; integrating non-Muslims was a better strategy than risking losing them, and the territories they inhabited, to rebellion. With regard to this sector of Ottoman society, Mahmud’s new sartorial policy was a success.

A Group Photo of the Doctors of the (Hasköy) Hospital for Women

Fig. 5 - Abdullah Fréres (Armenian). A Group Photo of the Doctors of the (Hasköy) Hospital for Women, 1880-1893. Photograph. Washington: Library of Congress, LOT 9534, no. 6. Source: LOC

Boutique et Marchand Turcs

Fig. 6 - Sebah & Joaillier. Boutique et Marchand Turcs, 1800-1900. Photograph. Washington: Library of Congress, LOT 6984. Source: LOC

Other groups were less compliant. Muslim artisans wore the fez with a turban-like cloth wrapped around it, or they rejected it altogether. The Turkish historian Reşat Ekrem Koçu has attributed this reticence to conservatism and religious chauvinism on the part of Muslims alarmed at the symbolic elevation of the religious minorities (1967, 114). The incidence of violence between the empire’s religious communities throughout the nineteenth century supports this interpretation; still, other factors may have been at play. Workers and artisans had concrete reasons to view Mahmud’s reforms with suspicion. The Istanbul guilds had been closely aligned with the Janissary corps, and its dissolution robbed them of much of their political influence. Mahmud’s administration reversed the protectionist policies of his predecessors, opening the doors of the empire to foreign competition. By the end of the century the lower classes had adopted the fez too (Fig. 6); note though that some of the men wear it with a cloth wrapping, a style Quataert has suggested may have been a tool of resistance, a means by which workers expressed their opposition to state economic policy (1997, 414-416). Regardless of its causes, popular resistance to the fez shows how intensely politicised the issue of clothing was in late Ottoman society. For the first Ottomans who wore it, the fez was neither a time-honoured tradition nor an organic development of public taste – it was an instrument of social engineering.

The Economics of Reform

At the beginning of the 1830s, the Ottoman Empire was home to more than twenty-seven million people, and had a voracious appetite for hats. Supply issues raised by the clothing reform, and the solutions that developed to resolve them, reflected Ottoman society’s changing relationship with the world economy. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the fez industry strained under the pressures of industrialisation, a process of conflict and negotiation that was to be fatally disrupted by European encroachment. These forces, characteristic of economic life throughout the wider Ottoman sphere, were felt particularly acutely at the empire’s periphery. In Tunis, long its centre, fez production was structured around powerful guilds and depended on skilled artisanal labour. Nonetheless, it was a dynamic and productive sector; employing some 20,000 workers in the mid-eighteenth century, the fez industry furnished the city with its most numerous export (Peyssonnel and Desfontaines 1838; Boubaker 2003).

Interior of the Imperial Fez Factory

Fig. 7 - Abdullah Fréres (Armenian). Interior of the Imperial Fez Factory, 1880-1893. Photographic print. Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, LOT 11911, no. 49. Source: Library of Congress

The Ottoman clothing reforms upset this balance. To supply their new armies, Mahmud and Mehmed Ali both established fez factories in the late 1820s in their respective capitals of Istanbul and Cairo (Fig. 7). Unfettered by the traditions of the Tunisian guilds, the new craftsmen were better able to adapt to modern industrial methods and so gained a competitive edge. Some Tunisian entrepreneurs responded by attempting to mechanise their industry, a move that brought them into conflict with the workers and the guilds. Mechanisation depended on foreign know-how, and so by rejecting the steam engine, the guilds were also repudiating foreign economic influence in their city. More fundamentally, though, opposition to mechanisation was a matter of survival. Petitions addressed to the local government by guild members identifying themselves as “poor workers” attest to the dire threat that the machines posed to their livelihoods (Lafi 2017). It seems paradoxical that the vast expansion of the market for fezzes should have impoverished rather than enriched the artisans who produced them, but this is precisely what happened. Mahmud’s reforms created demand for the product of their labour, but also for economic transformation that the centuries-old industry was not equipped to undertake.

The crisis of the Tunisian fez industry, then, can best be understood as arising from tensions between the modernising Ottoman core and its periphery. This was not an irresolvable problem. Violent outbursts like the Auspicious Incident aside, the groundwork for the Tanzimat reform project was laid as much by cooperation as by coercion; the ability of Ottoman society to balance the competing interests of its constituent communities was one of the key reasons for the empire’s long-term success (Findley 2010). After all, the most successful of all nineteenth-century industrialising nations, Great Britain, had faced a much more serious anti-mechanisation challenge – in the form of the machine-smashing Luddite movement – than that posed by the law-abiding petitioners of Tunis (Lafi 2017, 63-64). The Ottoman Empire’s internal obstacles to industrialisation were not markedly greater than those faced by the other powers, and there is no reason to think that, had the empire been left to its own devices, they could not have been overcome.

The industrialising project failed in Tunisia because of pressures from without. Just as reforms from Istanbul were disrupting the Tunisian fez sector, European industry was poised to take advantage of the breakdown. European merchants had begun to encroach on Ottoman economic affairs in the late eighteenth century, using a combination of innovative production methods, espionage, and outright diplomatic pressure to secure trade agreements favourable to their nations’ industrialists. First French, then Austrian headwear manufacturers flooded the Ottoman market with cheaper products. In the 1890s, after Tunisia had been annexed to the French colonial empire, Austrian fezzes could reportedly be purchased in the province for “less than the cost of the actual amount of wool” needed to make it (Lafi 2017, 76). They likewise dominated the market in territories still under Ottoman rule. When the Dual Monarchy annexed Ottoman Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, Ottoman citizens responded with a boycott of Austrian goods. In Istanbul, demonstrators publicly destroyed their foreign-made fezzes, a spectacle that was to become a defining image of the campaign (Yilmaz 2013, 25-26). By this time, though, the fez of Mahmud’s reforms had changed into something else altogether. So had the regime it represented.

Sultan Abdülmecid (1823-1839-1861)

Fig. 8 - B. Kargopoulo. Sultan Abdülmecid (1823-1839-1861), ca. 1839-1861. Photograph. Istanbul: Salt. Source: Google Arts & Culture

Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz

Fig. 9 - Jean Pascal Sebah (1838-1910). Sultan Abd-ul-Aziz, ca. 1861-1876. Photograph. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France. Source: Gallica

Abdul Hamid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire

Fig. 10 - Judd & Co after unknown artist. Abdul Hamid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, published 29 June 1878. Lithograph; 38.1 x 27.1 cm. London: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D47409. Source: NPG

Atatürk in White Tie

Fig. 11 - Photographer unknown. Atatürk in White Tie, 1925. Source: Wikimedia

"The Dress of Civilised People"

The key position of the fez at the intersection of nineteenth-century Ottoman politics and fashion is discernible at a glance by the names given to the different styles that came in and out of fashion over the period. Each bore the name of the sultan who popularised it –  the somewhat higher mejidiye of Adbülmejid (1839-1861) (Mansel 2005, 107; Fig. 8) and the squat aziziye of Abdülaziz (reigned 1861-1876; Fig. 9). Sultan Abdülhamid II (reigned 1876-1909) favoured a nearly cylindrical fez (Fig. 10). Like Mahmud, he made the headwear a symbol of his own vision of Ottoman identity – but unlike that of his predecessor, Abdülhamid II’s vision looked inward and to the past. The Ottomanism of the Tanzimat reached its culmination in 1876 with the granting of the Empire’s first constitution. At first a supporter of the new parliamentary government, Abdülhamid dismissed the new General Assembly in 1878. Integrating the Christian minorities had failed to arrest the territorial breakup of the empire, so the sultan changed tack – he reorientated state ideology to appeal to his Muslim subjects.

Though the title had fallen into disuse, Ottoman sultans since the time of Selim I (reigned 1512-1520) had also been caliphs: successors to the Prophet and nominal leaders of the Islamic world. Seeking to secure the loyalty of the non-Turkish Muslim populations over whom he ruled – Arabs and Kurds – Abdülhamid reinvigorated this office. Emphasising the significance of the caliphate as equal to or even greater than the Turkish sultanate, Albülhamid built mosques and religious school and funded prominent spiritual leaders, thus strengthening his relationship with believers both within and outside the empire. In the words of M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, this was “Ottomanism with Muslim colouring” (2008, 142). It wore a Muslim hat, too. To preserve the hegemony of the fez, Abdülhamid banned the wearing of the Western brimmed hat in 1877. This was a striking reversal of the dynamics of 1829. Mahmud would likely have seen the growing popularity of the European hat among Ottoman citizens employed by foreign companies as a favourable step towards Westernisation. Abdülhamid’s decision to proscribe it represented the end of the modernising era in Ottoman sartorial policy (Yilmaz 2013, 25).

But the pace of transformation in the empire did not slow. Abdülhamid lost his throne in 1909, and autocracy was replaced by the regime of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a cadre of officers who blended centralist modernisation with nationalism. The CUP government fell in turn with the empire’s defeat in the First World War. Nationalist forces under Mustafa Kemal succeeded in ousting the Allied armies of occupation; abolishing the Ottoman Empire in 1922, he established a new Republic of Turkey in its place. Eleven years of conflict had profoundly transformed former Ottoman society. Shorn of its Arab provinces, its Armenian and Greek minorities murdered or expelled, the new state was ethnically Turkish; its centre was Ankara, not Istanbul. Arguably, the scars left by the loss of these communities, which had made such rich contributions to Ottoman culture, have yet to heal (McMeekin 2016, 488-489). After six centuries of cultural cosmopolitanism, Turkish society had to reinvent itself.

Seeking a clean break with the old regime, the Kemalist government promulgated a hard-line secularist, Westernising cultural policy. Turkish citizens were not expected to dress as formally as Kemal (Fig. 11), but adherence to European style was required. In the debates that developed between traditionalists and modernisers, sartorial policy was a particularly contentious issue.

In August of 1925, Mustafa Kemal appeared in the conservative stronghold of Kastamonu to give a speech on the topic of civilised clothing. The style of dress inherited from the Ottomans, he told the crowd, was neither “nationalistic” nor “civilised and universal”; dressed in a tailored suit and holding his Panama hat in his hand (see Fig. 12), he urged the citizens to wear:

“shoes on the feet, trousers over the legs, shirts with neckties under the collar, jackets, and naturally, to complement all of this, a head covering to protect you from the sun. The name of this head-gear is “hat”. The dress of civilised people is good enough for us” (quoted in Yumul 2010, 351).

President Gazi Mustafa Kemal with those who greeted him on his return from Kastamonu to Ankara

Fig. 12 - Photographer unknown. President Gazi Mustafa Kemal with those who greeted him on his return from Kastamonu to Ankara, 1925. Source: Turkish Department of Education

Hat reform was not a footnote to the Kemalist project. As one of Kemal’s aides told a Western observer, it was “fundamental” – after the Turkish public had accepted it, “there was no reform that [the new government] could not have forced on them” (Padwick 1958, 50). To ensure compliance, the new style was written into law. The “Hat Law” of November 1925 outlawed the wearing of the fez, just ninety-nine years after its introduction. Resistance to the law was quickly repressed (Yilmaz 2013, 29-32); it remained on the books until 2014.

Conclusion: what kind of “Sick Man”?

If the history of the Ottoman fez seems, as Mark Twain might put it, to rhyme, this is because its introduction and its abolition were expressions of the same political imperative. For both Mahmud II and Mustafa Kemal, headwear reform was an essential first step towards a larger program of social restructuring. This was not a coincidence. Headwear, already politicised by the reactionary Ottoman regimes, could hardly have been depoliticised by the reformers. The transformations that Mahmud and Kemal envisioned were not merely political – they wanted to create new kinds of citizens with which to make a new social order. Headwear reform allowed this program to be insinuated directly into everyday life. Charged though they were with symbolic significance, the fez and the hat were also intimately personal objects. The citizen who put his new headwear on each morning and took it off each night bound up his own self-image with the reforming ideology of the state.

What is perhaps most striking in this history is its duration. Only a single long human lifetime passed between the introduction of the fez and its abolition – ninety-nine years of crisis and reform in which the Ottoman Empire showed itself to be remarkably resilient. Our understanding of this fascinating society has long been coloured by preconceptions inherited from contemporary European statemen. For them, the empire was the “Sick Man of Europe” – stagnant and unable to rouse itself from its terminal decline. This was a self-serving notion, providing convenient justification for the policy of states like Russia, Britain and France, which sought to “manage” the empire’s dissolution to their own territorial benefit. Only the Ottomans themselves refused to play along. Time and again throughout the nineteenth century, they responded creatively to crises that threatened the survival of their state. Ottoman society proved itself capable of remarkably dynamic transformations. A new class of forward-looking political men found the means to overcome and then reinvent their traditions – the fez they wore was their symbol. Until history proved them wrong, it represented their faith that their empire would find its way in the modern world.