Eternally Fashionable Istanbul

During the Easter holidays – which seem a very long time ago now – I visited Istanbul, a city that first captured my imagination and sparked my historical curiosity when I studied the Byzantine empire at university. Istanbul is a city of enormous contrasts, which befits its great size; it is simultaneously modern and old, creative and conservative, friendly and foreboding. It is no wonder, then, that the city, its people and its past, has long provided inspiration for the fashion industry.

The Chora Church, or more specifically the Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields, is located in the Edirnekapi district of Istanbul. Constructed during the fifth century, the church was incorporated into the enormous walls that were built to protect the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II between 402 and 450. The architecture of the church was much changed in the years that followed and what survives today is the product of works undertaken between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. It was during the latter phase of architectural renovation, in the early fourteenth century, that the church’s interior was decorated with a series of illuminated murals and mosaics from the Old Testament.

Enter the church today, however, and you may justifiably wonder whether you are stepping back into a medieval past or viewing a contemporary fashion installation. The clothed saints, bejewelled and resplendent in their boldly coloured robes, anticipate the styles of Christian Lacroix (1987) Hussein Chalayan (2002), Vivienne Westwood (2013) and Dolce & Gabbana (2014).

The medieval period is often regarded as a time before fashion because the clothed silhouette was concealed by swathes of fabric that made men and women, rich and poor, look much alike. Belts were one of the few means of giving tabards a body-like shape before buttons and aiguillettes were commonplace. And yet, it was probably because of the ubiquity of tabards or cloaks that encouraged people to seek sartorial distinction through other means, chiefly the colour, texture and ornamentation of their dress. The desire to make similar looking garments distinctive actually made medieval dress remarkably creative and, for today’s tourists and consumers, very appealing.

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