Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Kemalism on the Catwalk: The Turkish Hat Law of 1925

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Kemalism on the Catwalk: The Turkish Hat Law of 1925

Article excerpt


Fashion as a symbol of civilization, and clothes as means of identity construction as well as markers of identity are common denominators in all human history. Exploited by rulers and governments to define gender, class, occupation, age, religious affiliation and rank, fashion icons and clothing regulations provide an authentic source for the study of identity formation.

In Turkey today, the issue of what to wear of not to wear is once more on top of the political agenda. On June 5, 2008, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Turkish Parliament had violated the constitutional principle of secularism by passing an amendment, approved by an overwhelming majority of the Turkish Parliament, to lift the headscarf ban in universities.

This article, however, is concerned with a much earlier chapter in the sartorial biography of Turkey. Considered an important tool by Mustafa Kemal in his attempts to modernize Turkish society and join ranks with the "contemporary civilization" of Europe, the Hat Law of 1925 required the Turkish people to wear western hats and forbade the use of any other headgear. (1) To continue wearing the fez would be interpreted as disobedience towards the government, and was punishable by imprisonment. (2)

The Hat Law was enacted while the Law on the Restoration of Order of March 4, 1925 was in force, authorizing the government to: "... prohibit on its own initiative and by administrative measure (subject to the approval of the President) all organizations, provocations, exhortations, initiatives and publications which cause disturbance of the social structures, law and order and safety and incite to commit reactionary acts and subversion." (3)

During the two-and-a-half month immediately following enactment of the Hat Law, 808 people were arrested for violations of it. The renowned Islamic intellectual scholar Iskilipli Atif was among the 57 who were executed for instigating rebellion against the state in this context. (4)

By this legislation the individual head became a political site of identity construction. (5) Thus the Hat Law can be interpreted as a 'boundary object' a fusion or a bridge point between social and political history. (6)

Self-situated in the dichotomous Orientalist discourse of East vs. West, the Kemalist regime equated modernity with westernization, and disavowed traditional values and religion. During this process, Islam was construed as representing something other than modernity, while at the same time (Kemalist) reason, not belief, was seen as having the right to legislative power in the Turkish Republic. The provisions of the republican revolution were almost all related to diminishing the social and political role of Islam in favor of wholesale westernization: Adoption of the Swiss Civil Code, the Italian Penal Code, the Gregorian calendar, the Latin alphabet, and Sunday as the weekly holiday, all of which incorporated secularism as a constitutional principle. The (arguably absurd) extension of this logic was the passage of the Hat Law.

The Kemalist modernization project was challenged not only by rival interpretations of modernity from within the westernized intellectual elite, but also from voices within the Muslim establishment who sought to strike a balance between modernization and Islam.

A range of literature on modern Turkey, both western and Turkish, has been studied for this paper. However, apart from Orhan Kologlu's Islam'da Baslik (Headgear in Islam), which gives an excellent overview of the matter and has been used as a point of departure for this article, few books deal explicitly with the Hat Law. As far as other secondary sources are concerned, the Hat Law is generally viewed as a mere manifestation of various approaches to:

1. The Kemalist elite's secularization policy. (7)

2. The Kemalist elite's emphasis on making a total break with the past. …

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