Şalvar (pronounced shalvar) are baggy trousers that formed part of the dress of the Turks who came to Anatolia in the eleventh century C.E. and continue to be worn today. Traditional dress for both men and women in the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) generally consisted of three main garments: the şalvar, gömlek or undershirt, and robe. Additional layers such as vests, fur-lined robes and short jackets could be added to an outfit, together with belts, sashes, jewelry, and other accessories. In some areas, the şalvar were worn with an undershirt and short jacket, as illustrated here. 

The appearance of şalvar varied with the time period, region, class, and gender of the wearer. Şalvar worn by the urban elite were often made of expensive, highly decorative silks, either matching or contrasting with the fabric of the robe. Outside of the cities, women’s şalvar were often made out of handwoven cotton, decorated with elaborate embroidery panels on the lower part of the garment leg. 

With the clothing reforms enacted by Sultan Mahmud II beginning in 1826, most Ottoman men were required to wear European style trousers and frock coats. While their inside dress was not regulated by the government, women too adopted European fashions over the course of the century. Şalvar continued to be worn by the more conservative, by rural residents, and to figure prominently in the commercial photographs produced for the tourist market illustrating harem life in the Ottoman Empire. 

Images of harem women were an important part of the Orientalist repertoire of photographs, presenting views of their subject in a setting which evoked the harem with a few key items: water pipe, slippers, coffee pot, small table, and textiles being the most common. The subjects were shown seated or reclining, or as dancers or musicians. While some women appear in clothes that might have been worn by elite women in their homes, more often they are dressed in şalvar, see through shirts, vests, and sashes, a costume reserved mostly for such photographs. It is this costume, which appeared in innumerable photographs and Orientalist paintings of the nineteenth and early-twentieth century that has informed the modern incarnation of harem pants.


Appropriation and Influence

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Harem Pants

The wide variety of garments described as harem pants in today’s market have little to do with the şalvar from which they are purported to derive. The harem pants label instead focuses on the still potent image of the Orientalist fantasy of the harem. By ignoring the actual fashion history of the garment to foreground the harem fantasy, the fashion industry is perpetuating an inaccurate and racist image of a traditional Muslim society and of the women who live there.

Ethnic Princess Leilly Harem Pants. Material: Cotton. Fantazia Shop.

Child Jasmine Whole New World Costume. 2019. Materials: Polyester.

Jasmine in Disney's Aladdin

Disney’s 1992 animated film Aladdin, a huge commercial success, was met with significant criticism for its stereotypical, inaccurate, and damaging portrayal of Arabs and Arab culture. Though the studio attempted to address these issues in its 2019 live action remake, it is the 1992 Jasmine’s turquoise harem outfit that remains the iconic image for the character, and the one most widely available for purchase by would-be princesses, shaping the perceptions of Middle Eastern women in the minds and imaginations of young consumers and perpetuating an outmoded and demeaning stereotype.

Child Jasmine Whole New World Costume. 2019. Materials: Polyester. Party City.

Paul Poiret, French, 1879-1944. 1911. Costume (Fancy Dress), overall, front. Place: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Poiret & Orientalist Fashion

In June 1911 the French designer Paul Poiret held an elaborate Orientalist themed fancy dress party, the 1002nd Night, to introduce his new dress styles and a new perfume. Poiret received the 300 guests dressed as a sultan. His wife Denise, playing the part of a harem concubine, modeled the new style, “jupe culotte” or harem ‘pantaloons’ paired with a short hoop skirt which came to be known as his lampshade tunic. Fashion history credits him with creating clothing that allowed women to discard rigid and confining corsets as well as other achievements, but he also drew upon long-lived and highly inaccurate images of the Middle East in designing and marketing his jupe culotte styles.

Paul Poiret, French, 1879-1944. 1911. Costume (Fancy Dress), overall, front. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Currier, N. (firm), The bloomer costume, 1851, lithograph, Library of Congress

Dress Reform for American Women

Loose fitting trousers modelled on the Ottoman women’s şalvar, combined with a shorter skirt were promoted by Amelia Bloomer and other US feminists in the 1850s as an alternative to the constrictive fashions of the day requiring corsets and heavy crinolines. Many Euro-American women who visited Turkish harems in the nineteenth century were impressed by the property rights and relative personal freedoms of their hostesses, which exceeded what was available to them at the time. Bloomer’s costume modifications, ultimately unsuccessful, were meant to evoke these freedoms as well as provide greater ease of movement for the wearer.

Currier, N. (firm), The bloomer costume, 1851, lithograph, Library of Congress.


Geczy, Adam. “Occidentalizing the Orient: Modern Turkey.” In Transorientalism in Art, Fashion and Film: Inventions of Identity, 29–50. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019.

Jirousek, Charlotte A., and Sara Catterall. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West. A Visual History of Cultural Exchange. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019.

Scarce, Jennifer. Women’s Costume of the Near and Middle East. London: Unwin Hyman, Ltd., 1987.

Tezcan, Hülya. “Royal Dress Preserved at the Topkapi Museum.” In Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion: Central and Southwest Asia, edited by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, 139–147. Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2010.