What to Wear in Turkey

The strange art of travel includes, to my surprise, shopping. After several years of wandering around Italy, England, then Greece and Turkey it occurred to me that I like to buy dresses when I travel. I love taking home dresses I have worn, ahhh the memories they evoke. My silk dress brings back memories of the sunset in Santorini, Greece. So ignore the price tag, and buy a new dress when you travel.

Women in America don’t seem to wear dresses any more. In fact I have a part-time job where I am forbidden to wear a dress. Yet in the rest of the world, most women wear a dress everyday.
I discovered dresses make the perfect travel garment. One, they are comfortable; two they make me look like a woman to the locals. Not women acting like a guy. Many a kind man has stopped to help me with my bag, I am convinced, because I have a dress on and look right, i.e. culturally acceptable. Folk chat with me in the market because I look approachable in a dress.

And contrary to the myth that a popular fashion/travel magazine promotes, it does not have to be black dress.

When I return to America from Turkey, one of the most popular and frequent questions women ask is “How do women dress?” and “What did you wear?” The eternal historical human fascination with clothes continues.

In Istanbul most of the women under thirty wear western clothes. Jeans and tee shirts is standard wear on the teenagers. I was interviewed by a group of teenagers with a cell phone, and a tape recorder, at lunch near the tramline in Istanbul. It was spring break and they had to interview anyone in English for bonus points at school.

The older Turkish women wear a dress, skirts, and a head covering. My girlfriends in Selcuk wear tight jeans and tight tops.

In the Topkapi palace on the day I visited there were quite a few women students in various forms of conservative dress, from gray over coats and head scarves, to the total black look, including black boots. So the classic conservative look is also alive. Clothes watching in Turkey is an exciting sport, like bird watching.

While in Istanbul I like to wear my green dress. It covers my upper arms, and falls just below the knee and I can walk all day in it. At night I like my black almost mini skirt. Istanbul is very cosmopolitan in the old city. My hotel manger liked my shorter skirts, and I did not feel any disapproval in a knee length skirt or bare arms when I walked down the street. However I don’t think I would wear both a short skirt and bare arms. That could be a bit much for the local Islamic sensibilities.

Everyone who visits Turkey is impressed by Turkish hospitality and tact. I visited one of my friends in his shop in Istanbul wearing a tank top under my sun shirt. I took the top shirt off in his shop because it was a warm day to me. Later I found out that he is very religious, and visits Mecca for a month every year to pray and rest from the tourist trade. Taking off the outer shirt and sitting in a tank top was not a considerate act on my part. He was a true gentleman and offered me a silk scarf, hoping I am sure, that I would cover up a bit. Which I did, draping the scarf over my shoulders like a shawl.

Since I wash my clothes in the shower when I travel, often doing a soap stomp on them to get the stains out, they show wear fast. So I bought a dress in Bodrum, the medieval harbor city on the coast of Turkey, one fine wind blown evening.

The lights of the sailboats tied to the harbor wall swayed in the warm wind off the ocean. I could hear the “wine dark seas” of Homer calling me to run away with the next sailor that came by. Instead of doing total life disruption, I just bought a new dress. Shopping therapy has its place.

The weather was getting hotter every day, so I bought a short sleeve, loose, blue cotton dress that came down to almost my ankles. The twenty-year-old sales clerk did not approve. She thought I needed a tight, racy tank top, and a few piercings. Covered with strange white embroidered symbols, the blue dress was one modest and cool summer dress. Perfect for travel.

Little old Turkish ladies came up and patted my hand when they saw me wearing this dress; it got the “grandma stamp of approval”. A week later I happened to tour the ancient site of Ephesus, while wearing the blue Bodrum dress with my trusty sunhat. The guide informed me that the cute embroidered figures on the dress were ancient fertility symbols; bulls’ testicles, and eggs. OH MY…

Imagine walking around in ancient fertility symbols. No wonder the old ladies came up and patted my hand, they thought I wanted to be pregnant. No wonder the men stayed away.

Artemis, the Goddess Covered with Bull's Testicles and Eggs
Artemis, the Goddess Covered with Bull’s Testicles and Eggs
The ancient goddess Artemis is often shown covered with bulls testicles and egg symbols so I guess I was in good company, if not in good taste. I continued to wear my blue fertility dress; it is cool, comfortable, a bit dowdy, and a great conversation piece.

Cleaning my closet the other day, I had to face the fact that several of my memory dresses need to move to the rag bag. It was hard; I danced the night away in Rome, beyond the Trevi fountain in one old favorite. Another saw a three-week trip across the UK one perfect summer. The last was my Greek silk dress; memories of ferries between islands assailed me. Out they went, with a tear. Then I looked at my pack, petted my passport, it must be time for another trip, time to weave memories into a new dress.


Justine lives in Oregon with three shelties and two cats that miss her when she must pack her bag and go rambling. Writing stories, plotting trips, and cooking makes her feel good during the long rains in Oregon. More stories and advice at www.justinetravel.com.