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Istanbul clothing

So this is premature...but I'm looking into ~5 days in Istanbul next early June. First time in Turkey! I will already be in Italy and would add this at the end of my trip. Anyway, I'm wondering about clothing for women - what is appropriate and not going to attract attention. The end-of-summer sales are starting in the US soon so if I find suitable things, might as well buy them now!

I'm concerned about modesty - by US and most of Europe standards I dress pretty typically for a 30-something woman. In summer that means dresses a little bit above the knee, sleeveless or short sleeve tops, medium length shorts, sandals THIS would be a typical summer type outfit In churches in Italy I might change it to a similar but slightly longer dress and just throw a scarf over my shoulders for the church visit.

So I'm not looking for "fashion" advice but more what's...culturally OK. I'm aware that Istanbul has all sorts of people wearing everything under the sun, but if I'm walking down the street alone I don't want my typical-for-USA clothing to be perceived as revealing and cause trouble.

Posted by
266 posts

Just about anything that will work in Italy will work in Istanbul, I think. When I was there I saw everything from really short mini skirts to burkas. (I think that the few women I saw with burkas were from Saudi Arabia and more conservative countries.) I visited during the shoulder season, and so I didn't have any light dresses with me, and I am of an age at which I don't worry too much about unwanted attention. I am hoping other folks chime in with opinions.

My impression is that people in Istanbul are pretty cosmopolitan and tolerant. Central Turkey is more conservative.

If you visit a mosque, you will need to have your shoulders, knees and head covered --- maybe just a bit more modestly than in a church in Italy. If you are not dressed appropriately, they will give you some kind of disposable drape to use.

Turkey is wonderful!! You are going to have a great time!

Posted by
6147 posts

It really depends what area of Istanbul you'll be spending the most time in. If the Old City/ Sultanahmet, then I would prepare to stand out and deal with touts pretty much on a constant basis (they are very persistent, so be prepared). If you stay or hang out in the New City (over the Galata bridge) or Kadikoy/Moda on the Asian side, you can walk everywhere with no one bothering you or paying attention to you - it's wonderful. I spent over two weeks just in Istanbul (I stayed in an apartment suite close to the Old City) and would offer the following rule of thumb advice - the more skin you leave covered, the more comfortable you'll probably feel and the less attention you get as a young woman. And you will get attention, mostly because it's just not that common to see a woman traveling alone. And it will be obvious that you're a western tourist. The economy in Turkey is doing so poorly, I'm sure that there will be added pressure to engage tourists in purchasing all sorts of items you may not be interested in (carpets, trinkets, you name it - it's one giant bazaar).

So I would ditch any sleeveless dress or shirt unless you plan on putting something over it, which sort of defeats the purpose. I wore a bright sleeveless dress once and learned the hard way. So I opted for long linen pants and loose linen shirts and felt much, much better. I don't usually wear long skirts, but I did that as well. I was there in June too, so it was quite hot. Being covered up allowed me so much more (psychological) freedom - I could just walk into any mosque and tour it with no problem. And I just felt a lot more comfortable not showing legs or arms but just wearing light clothes that kept me as cool as possible. Don't overthink it...once you get on the ground, you'll get the hang of what feels better, but I would bring clothes you would not normally wear in Italy with you. I don't fully agree with the prior post that generally everyone is tolerant and cosmopolitan (it's all relative based on social class, whether religious or secular, etc.) - a lot of people in Istanbul came from very conservative rural areas and there is a very big divide between secular and non-secular norms. Plus there's an age and gender divide. Plus they have many poor refugees, so again, I would not assume that it will be like Western Europe everywhere in terms of very liberal dress norms. Given it's such a huge, layered city, you can experience all sorts of different "worlds" just in one place. I've seen everything from glittering high rises to really ramshackle neighborhoods where you will see only men sitting outside playing backgammon and other board games or smoking.

Posted by
1557 posts

I agree with Marie that Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city. Our guide told us the women in burkas were from other very conservative countries like Saudi Arabia. I saw all manner of dress for women while I was there last October.
When entering a Mosque, you will be given a coverup for whatever body part is exposed, be it knees, shoulders or your head. I had a scarf handy to wrap over my head and neck. Usually you have to remove your shoes as well.
In the countryside of Turkey away from the big cities, dress is much more conservative. But it sounds like you already have a good handle on what is acceptable in Italian churches. I would have a scarf handy for your head.
Enjoy! Turkey is a fascinating country, I enjoyed my time there and was glad I went as it was out of my comfort zone.

Posted by
2687 posts

I understand your desires to be respectful and they will appreciate it too. I was in Istanbul one March so covering up wasn't so vital. As mentioned, you may see mode of dress in the summer. Depending on your schedule, you may want to glomp all the mosques together on the same day (or two) and just dress for it. Cover knees (cover, not mid knee - no slits showing thigh) and shoulders. If just a cap sleeve, take a scarf to cover more of your arm, or they will give/sell you something disposable. Some scarf to cover head and hair.

As to attracting attention, it isn't going to matter what you do, you will stand out to some level. I am a middle aged caucasian travelling alone and still got noticed....because I was a woman alone. I was sitting on a bench in the sun on a Friday, so lots of families and friends, and behind their sunglasses, I could tell I was being assessed.....mostly by children and other women. I was dressed quite casually as had been on safari before Istanbul. And a rug seller steps beside me and says 'you walk like a tourist, may I show ou my carpets?'.....so the sellers will find you regardless. For avoiding overt male attention, then cover up and go bland with colour or fashion. I find mirrored sunglasses a great turnoff to sellers or other attentions as they can't read your eyes and it is themselves reflected back.
Also, keep in mind that less or tight clothing doesn't make you cooler, loose long items in natural fabrics create a buffer from the direct sun and to some extent, their own breeze as they flap when you walk. I am trialing linen and rayon clothing for a Middle East trip next Spring where modest dress is more stringent and I don't want to be stuck in a free polyester burka when visiting mosques. It would essentially be a sauna suit. Blah.....

Posted by
13930 posts

Last time I was in Istanbul (just a year ago), I got into a conversation with a young woman in a skimpy dress (short, no sleeves, scoop neck - typical sundress). Turns out she's from Tehran and enjoying the freedom of wearing whatever she wants. I don't remember seeing people in shorts.

Posted by
2284 posts

This is all very interesting! So if I’m being careful I want to avoid sleeveless tops, which is fine. Is a regular short sleeve ok (like a t-shirt) or are we talking long sleeves? Lightweight pants or Capri pants or long skirts are easy, it’s the tops I’m wondering about.

Also would you suggest not staying in the old town?

Posted by
6147 posts

Also would you suggest not staying in the old town?

It depends how much being close to the main attractions is to you (while not all of them are in the Old Town, the top notch ones are). I prefer the vibe of Istiklal Street/ Beyoglu/ New Town, especially in the evenings when the main drag is full of people and you see people smoking hookahs and having drinks in the many small side restaurants/bars. It feels a lot more local and less tourist, whereas the opposite is true for Sultanahmet/Old City. But you'd have to factor in some commuting back and forth, which I enjoyed and didn't find too much of a pain. Most folks would pick Old Town, but for someone your age, I think a more lively, spirited and easier going part of town may be more attractive (it was for me, and I'm in my 40s). You can't go wrong either way.

As I said before, don't overthink the clothing (of course you can wear short sleeves)...I advised covering up only because it feels a lot less visible than showing skin. It really depends how self-conscious you'll be likely to be - and everyone is different. The key is just not to do the extremes - nothing sexy, tight, short, cleavage showing, etc. You won't get cat called, no worries about that - but you'll get stared at. And men (typically touts and salesmen) do follow you and are persistent, but they are not dangerous.

Posted by
266 posts

I wore short sleeve tees in Istanbul. No problem.

I tend to dress somewhat conservatively, whether at home or traveling, and so I may not be the best judge of what is acceptable. I always wear sleeves, and I don't wear short skirts. When I was in Istanbul, I wore the same kinds of clothes I wear at home --- tees and khakis or jeans. The only change was that I kept a nice scarf with me at all times in case I decided to go into a mosque.

Although Turkey is becoming more conservative, it's still not like going to Egypt or Saudi Arabia, where you have to be super careful about how you dress. I am planning a trip to Egypt now, and I am having to make serious wardrobe adjustments.

Will you get catcalls or propositions if you show a lot of skin? Might you offend someone? Yeah, maybe/probably, but the same is true in New York or Rome. And you will have to deal with rug touts regardless of what you are wearing.

Posted by
6 posts

Hey! I just did this trip in May -- two weeks in Italy, and a week in Istanbul, as a young woman traveling alone. While many neighborhoods of Istanbul are more cosmopolitan, if you are spending time in Sultanahmet around the major historic sites or Eyup (around Chora Church) or Fener/Balat, you will see many many women almost completely covered up, whether they're Gulf tourists or women from more conservative religious communities within Istanbul. For many reasons, including trying to limit attention from men, being around many women in extremely conservative dress, traveling alone, and wanting to be able to access mosques without needing borrow clothing, I'd recommend dressing more modestly than you might in Italy. I was traveling with a few maxi dresses, some short-sleeve dresses that hit below the knee, and jeans/tops, carrying a big scarf every day as well. Below-the-knee dresses weren't long enough for mosques (had to borrow ankle-length cover-ups), and I also just felt very exposed (even though there were other female tourists wearing much less clothing), so I just felt more comfortable wearing jeans and maxi dresses, and I tended to keep my scarf around my shoulders, too.

Posted by
13930 posts

I was surprised at all the burqas I saw in Istanbul last June. I asked a local and he said they are all tourists from the Gulf countries. 4 years ago I took the RS Turkey tour and didn't see burqas in the villages which are much more traditional than Istanbul.

Short sleeves are fine everywhere. Capris and skirts that cover the knees are also fine. Wear sandals that are easy to take off and put on - you have to take them off for every mosque There are plastic bags at the major ones for you to carry them around with you. Any scarf will do as a head covering, they have pretty ones you can buy as souvenirs in the nicer shops (avoid the cheap made-in-China ones).

Sultanahmet is a great place to stay, close most of the sights and bazaars, lots of restaurant options, easy tram transportation and quite safe.

Posted by
29 posts

I would wear short sleeves rather than no sleeves and no shorts but short dresses are okay. When I lived in Istanbul that's what my employer recommended but that was a handful of years ago.

Posted by
110 posts

Agnes is quite right. I am a frequent traveler to Turkey (Istanbul as well as other parts of the country). I love going to Turkey. I strongly suggest no shorts, no dresses above the knee, no tight clothing. A regular short sleeve t shirt is fine, capris are fine too (as long as they are not the shorter lengths). Also, definitely no cleavage showing. I like to wear crew neck t shirts there and at home.

The women in burkas are not Turks, they are from other Muslim countries. Turkish women cover up differently than women from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. Turkish women don’t cover their face like some other Muslim women do.

Very important: VERY comfortable shoes!! Lots of cobblestone streets and uneven sidewalks in Istanbul.

Posted by
55 posts

I just got back from Turkey. I found that any attire was acceptable except when visiting a mosque. When visiting a mosque they will give you something to cover up if needed. For example, if your knees are exposed, then they will give you a long skirt (this includes men). I saw a few men expressing their feminine side. Outside of the mosque dress code, the only city we got a few stares but no words for wearing shorts was Konya which is a pretty conservative city.