Istanbul: When flight attendants first rode aboard Turkish Airlines in the late 1940s they wore cotton blouses under blue suits tailored to accentuate "the contours of the body," as a fashion history of the airline puts it. In the '60s and '70s the trend continued with fashions straight off the Paris runway, designed to show Turkey's European flair on its flagship airline.
Now, the country's shifting mores are reflected in a proposed new look: long dresses, skirts below the knee and Ottoman-style fez caps.
This being Turkey, where seemingly trifling matters can become bitter contests over identity, mock-ups leaked to the news media have caused quite a stir, eliciting passionate reactions from the secular and the pious, and from those who support the traditions of modern Turkey and others who are nostalgic for the days of the Ottoman Empire.
On Twitter, some Turks mocked the new uniforms as reminiscent of the costumes worn in
"Magnificent Century," a popular Turkish soap opera about the decadent reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The dispute was only heightened after the airline said it was banning alcohol on some domestic and international flights.
Others slammed the new look as too conservative, a transparent effort to please the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The party's decade-long run in power has wrought changes in the traditionally secular culture, like the acceptance of Islamic headscarves in public and on college campuses and restrictions on alcohol in certain places.
"It is a reaction against imposing a certain lifestyle to all institutions in Turkey," said Ayse Saktanber, a sociologist at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "Turkey is a pragmatic society which doesn't like to fall behind the world. These new costumes came with the alcohol ban on planes."
She added, "even my students with headscarves find these ridiculous."
In a statement to the local news media, Turkish Airlines tried to mute the uproar, saying that the design was leaked prematurely and that it is just one option among many being considered. "Among those that reinterpret traditional Turkish designs, there are also others that stick out with their modernist approach."
That Turkish Airlines has now become a locus of the country's culture wars is perhaps not surprising, given that the airline is considered something of a national treasure by many Turks.
This is particularly true of secularists, who see it as presenting the face of Turkey to the world. They recall that it was founded under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey who instituted secularism with an iron hand and banned the fez, among other symbols of Ottoman times.
With Turkey's rise as an economic and political power over the past decade, tourism has soared. Feeding some of the backlash against the new uniforms is the fear that tourists, many of whom form their first impressions of Turkey on a Turkish Airlines flight, will get the wrong impression. And for all the talk of Turkey pivoting from the West and becoming
a new leader of the Muslim world, the flight schedules tell a different narrative: In January nearly four times as many passengers flew to Europe than to the Middle East.
Some feel that Turkish Airlines, nearly 50-percent-owned by the government, is simply trying to please Erdogan, who, when he is not being accused by his opponents of being a strict Islamist, is referred to as a latter-day sultan for his accrual of power.
"Turkish Airlines is leaning toward a more conservative line," said Serdar Tasci, a sociologist who also works as a consultant to the main secular political party, the Republican People's Party, or CHP. "On the one hand it is trying to be a global brand, and on the other it is allying with the neoconservative policies of the political power."
In a written statement, the chairman of Turkish Airlines' board of directors did not deny that the airline was doing the government's bidding. In fact, he adamantly confirmed it. "The Turkish Airlines vision matches with our government's vision," said the chairman, Hamdi Topcu. "There is no difference between them and us. It is the government that appointed us."
He added, "The Turkish Republic's government, which came to power with democratic elections and gained the confidence of its people, represents this country's values."
In a sense, Tasci said, the stir caused by the uniform designs is just a new twist in a perpetual conflict here. "There has been a cultural clash here" for the last 200 years, Tasci said. "But now they are bringing back the old as something new, and that is increasing the conflict."
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the chairman of the CHP, said in an interview that "it's just not possible for them to go ahead with the designs that were leaked to the papers. This airline represents Turkey's image."
The uproar has cast a spotlight on the Turkish designer Dilek Hanif, who was commissioned by the airline to redesign the uniforms. Hanif seems to encapsulate the divides and diversity of Turkey's culture: A favorite of the Paris haute couture scene, her clothes are often inspired by Ottoman fashions and she is said to be a favorite of Turkey's headscarf-wearing first lady, Hayrunnisa Gul.
In an interview, Hanif said the uniform designs that appeared online were not final. She attributed the negative reaction - especially from those who found no deeper cultural meaning and simply called the designs ugly - to the callousness of the fashion industry, apparently as fierce in Istanbul as it is in New York, Paris and Milan.
"Contrary to the photos that were leaked," she said, "we are also working on a range of modern designs."
Yildirim Mayruk, another Turkish designer, was quoted in the Turkish news media as saying, "even if they are not finalized I think it is a disgrace to design them." Evoking the legacy of
Ataturk's secularist ideology, referred to as Kemalism, he added, "how right is it for a Kemalist woman to design such clothes?"
Hanif said her designs have always been a "synthesis of East and West," and is none too happy about being thrust to the front lines of Turkey's culture wars.
"I am still working on different designs, colors and alternatives," she said. "When the designs are finished they will be presented to Turkey and the world."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service