ISTANBUL (Reuters Life!) - An evening gown slit discreetly from the neck to the navel worn by Turkey’s former first lady Mevhibe Inonu is on show in an Istanbul exhibition, tracing how her style helped define the image of the young Turkish Republic.
The purple dress with draped back dating from the 1930s, joins a fringed Charleston dress from the 1920s, a ski jacket, and a 1960s floral-patterned suit to evoke a woman who lived to be 94 and whose husband succeeded Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey in 1923, as president.
The predominantly Western styles of Turkey’s first ladies have always been read as emblematic of a western-orientated national identity in the majority Muslim but secular state.
Yet in 2007 Turkey’s first first lady to cover her head moved into the presidential palace in Ankara to the chagrin of Turkey’s traditional secular elite.
Secularists claimed it was an offense to the emancipation of women that Ataturk had struggled to achieve and epitomized a power shift toward a more religious, conservative social class.
Mevhibe was born into the crumbling Ottoman Empire in 1897.
As the new Turkey looked to define itself as progressive and western-orientated, she typified a first generation of Turkish women who shed the traditional scarf, reveled in new freedoms and enthusiastically embraced the styles of Paris and Milan.
Her knee-length skirts, sleeveless gowns and trousers on show in the exhibition at the Istanbul Fashion Academy come in contrast to the Muslim dress of the wives of the current President and Prime Minister, Hayrunnisa Gul and Emine Erdogan.
Both women cover their heads and necks with the Muslim headscarf and wear long garments to cover the limbs.
“I loved to watch my mother when I was little, when she would tell me stories and would be dressing and getting ready,” said Mevhibe’s daughter Ozden Toker, who today is aged 79.
“She wasn’t particularly conscious of dressing to define the Republic. She wore the same clothes in private and in public. That is who she was,” she said.
Ataturk’s sole marriage had lasted only from 1923-1925 after which his former wife slipped out of the public eye, putting added attention on Mevhibe.
Public scrutiny of her outfits would be longstanding. Former President Ismet Inonu, also served several terms as Prime Minister, in the Republic’s first years and lastly in the 1960s.
Today, as in the first years of Turkey, the assertion of identity and the fight for a stake in society is to a great extent waged through women and their clothes.
Female dress codes go to the very heart of Turkey’s struggle to balance the demands of an increasingly prosperous but pious population and a traditionally pro-Western elite wary of any sign of Islam in public life.
The headscarf is banned in Turkish state institutions and universities as a symbol of Islam. Around 69 percent of Turkish woman cover their heads in some form, however, a 2007 survey by pollster Tarhan Erdem showed, with 16 percent using the more concealing turban-style scarf worn by Emine Erdogan and Hayrunnisa Gul.
The curator of the Mevhibe Inonu exhibition hopes to take the beautifully preserved clothes and accessories on show in fashion centers outside of Turkey.
“Mevhibe Inonu is the face of all our beautiful grandmothers who played piano and visited operas and balls knowing how they should dress. We are the children of those memorable people,” curator Oylum Oktem Isozen said.
Editing by Paul Casciato