How to dress in Istanbul?

Short skirt, high heels? Décolleté, modest or deep? Bare shoulders? Or is it better to choose long dresses with sleeves, long trousers, up-to-the-neck shirts? Choosing the right clothes in Istanbul isn’t easy. Or is it?

Last week the patriarch of the Greek Ecumenical Church in Istanbul complained about ‘naked women’ on the street in the neighbourhood where the patriarchate is located, Fener in the old Fatih district. Naked, that is in his eyes: tourists in short skirts, shirts without sleeves. It’s against morality, he pointed out. In my eyes, you’re not naked when you wear clothes, but somehow, I could see his point. Fatih, on the European side of town, is one of the most conservative districts of Istanbul, and as a tourist it’s certainly an idea to adjust to that a little bit.

In Istanbul everything is possible when it comes to clothes: from total-cover black Islamic carsaf to the shortest skirt with the highest heels and the deepest décolleté. But the problem is, as a tourist, you don’t know the city well enough to know where to wear what, as people who live here do. In Beyoglu or Nisantasi (around Taksim) nobody will bat an eyelid if you dress sexy, but you don’t want to end up dressed like that in Fatih’s most conservative neighbourhood, Carsamba, or in Aksaray, where a lot of prostitutes offer their services. You will get unwelcome approaches, or you just won’t feel comfortable.

I live in Üsküdar, also not the most modern part of town. I often throw a shawl around my shoulders and chest when I go out, and when I end up in a more modern district, the shawl is off. When I get to my destination, I sometimes also change my slippers to high heels – but that’s because walking on high heels in Istanbul is just practically impossible.

So, Istanbul is open to all sorts of clothes, or, like my aunt Marie-José said when she visited me last year: ‘Istanbul excludes nobody’. But if you want to feel comfortable everywhere, I suggest you throw a shawl in your bag in the morning (or buy one on the street for 5 to 10 lira), so you can adjust to where you are when you feel it’s necessary. Not because anybody would order you to cover up a bit (except when you visit a mosque or a church!) but so that you won’t feel uncomfortable.

By the way: for men, short shorts are strictly forbidden. But that of course is a world-wide rule.

4 thoughts on “How to dress in Istanbul?”

  1. Frederike’s post makes me smile because I made the mistake to think that there are no differences in dresscode in Istanbul and that it is a modern Turkish town everywhere. When I visited her, she warned me, fortunately. I wore a dress without sleeves and with a decolletee when we were going to leave her home. I would have felt uncomfortable if she hadn’t warned me. Bought a shawl and problem solved.

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  2. How very wise of your aunt, I loved her comment about dress-code in Istanbul: ‘Istanbul excludes nobody’..:)

    It is often thought that Istanbul is a very homogenic place when it comes to dressing. well, it is not even near being homogenic. You can be utterly restless if you happen to pass through some neighborhoods like Fatih, Çarşamba, Eyüp etc, with your clothes that suit modern parts of the town.

    But travellers don’t go to those neighborhoods that much, it solves the problem a bit.

    As a rule of thumb, don’t forget that you are not in New York and you will get some unwanted looks, especially from teenager boys and a little older men.

    For some more info about dress-codes in Istanbul and other travel advice for women, you can check this:

    http://www.istanbulextralarge.com/travel-advice.html

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