Corset: A Controversial Underwear for Late Ottoman Society

by Ayşenur Çenesiz
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On Dr. Berrak Burçak’s presentation about corset for late Ottoman society, Ayşenur Çenesiz wrote a blog post. She explained what Burcak had mentioned her presentation. She also noted her own impressions about the matter at hand.


On 21st February, Tarih Vakfı Ankara (History Foundation at Ankara) has opened the spring season with Dr. Berrak Burçak’s* presentation, “The Corset Issue: Discussing Fashion, Health and Female Beauty in the Late Ottoman Empire.” Throughout her presentation, Burçak shed the light on the corset discussions which occupied the late Ottoman press, addressed to a Muslim audience. She has examined it under interesting subtopics, from the late Ottoman intellectuals’ perceptions on European fashion, specifically on the corset, to how the Ottoman state used it as a tool of modernization.

Mother of Fortunate

Oxford Dictionary defines “corset” as “a woman’s tightly fitting undergarment extending from below the chest to the hips, worn to shape the figure”**. For Burçak, the central discussion on the corset in the Ottoman Empire was shaped around its flexibility. Although Ottoman physicians opposed a tight and constraining corset, some tried to find an alternative to corset. The most striking example Burçak gave was a letter, published in Hanımlara Mahsus Gazete (Ladies Own Gazette), written by Ümmü Mukbil. In 1895, she wrote this letter as a response to an earlier article about corset. She gives her advice to women that they should wear “a vest” instead of this uncomfortable underwear and “torture machine”.

Burçak specifically focused on the transformative effect of Ümmü Mukbil. In her letter, Mukbil tells her experience: She had told the disadvantages of wearing corset and her friends suddenly vowed not to wear it again. Burçak asks the question why her friends did swear off after the warnings of Ümmü Mukbil. Then another question arises, whether Ümmü Mukbil was a real woman or not. Her name might have a symbolic value as it means “the mother of fortunate”. Keeping in mind that the abovementioned newspaper was state-supported medium, this letter might even be created by a man who wants to highlight the ideal type of woman, via the means of press. For me, it was surprising to see that even a piece of underwear can be an important concern in shaping the state policies.

Ümmü Mukbil's Letter about corset in Ottoman Turkish
A part of Ümmü Mukbil’s letter about corset, written in Ottoman Turkish.

Corset as an Issue of Modernization

The reign of Abdülhamid II is known as an era of modernization attempts as well as restrictions. In the case of corset, as Burçak claims, we can see how the borders of modernization were drawn. In this era, western-style clothing was an obligation while it had limitations itself. For example, for some, corset prevented hıfz-ı sıhhat (protection of health). The health of an individual serves the interest of the Ottoman society. The Ottoman intellectuals might have felt the obligation to find an alternative to corset so that they wouldn’t be completely against this underwear during the adaptation of western-style clothing.

The discipline of history covers almost everything related with the humankind. Even a small piece of underwear can create such a dispute among the society. It can dominate the political, economic and cultural agenda. Berrak Burçak’s presentation reminded me this richness of my area of research.


* Berrak Burçak is a faculty member of Bilkent University, the Department of Political Science and Public Administration. She gained her Ph.D. from Princeton University. Her studies focus on late Ottoman History, early Republican Period, intellectual history and gender studies.

** Corset. (n.d.). In Lexico by Oxford. Retrieved from lexico.com.

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