TROUSSEAU - DOWRY
Despite all the divergences in ritual over the ages and from country to country, each society found its own but often similar ways of dealing with the material and financial aspects of the marriage partnership.
Paying money was one such widespread custom. While in some countries it was traditional for the bride's family to pay money to the groom, like the "dowry" of England or the "drohoma" of Greece, in others, like Turkey, the groom paid money to the bride's family. The marriage contract, too, was a widespread institution across many cultures, such as the "yinou" of Japan signed before the marriage consisting of a list of the couple's shared household goods.
Another institution found in many different countries is the trousseau - known in England as the "bottom drawer" and in Turkey as the "çeyiz sandığı" or "trousseau chest".
There is a Turkish saying which goes, "A girl in the cradle, a trousseau in the chest", and indeed even today mothers begin to put aside embroidered linen, lace and other handmade or bought household textiles from the moment a child is born. The trousseau was a feature of ancient Turkish Culture in Central Asia, and follows a similar pattern among the Mongols, for instance.
In Turkey, under the influence of Islam, the term "çeyiz" came to mean not only the household linen collected in the trousseau chest, but the entirety of the property taken into the marriage by the bride.
As soon as a girl was born it was the custom to plant at least one poplar, and in the case of wealthy families a whole field of poplars, and many families still do this today. Since poplars are a fast growing tree they are ready to sell for timber by the time the girl is of marriageable age, and so cover her share of the cost of setting up house.
Some families purchased a trousseau chest on the birth of a girl, others stored the household linen, carpets, clothing and other items made for the trousseau in a linen wrapper. To make sure that the contents did not yellow or become moth eaten over the intervening years, they had to be regularly checked and aired.
If a young girl disappeared suddenly in a village, her mother would first rush to see whether her trousseau was still in its place. If it was, that meant she had been carried off by a suitor against her will, but if it was missing then she had eloped of her own accord.
In Ottoman times when the daughter of a sultan married, her trousseau was carried in procession to the house of her intended husband just before the wedding. The baskets and chests were loaded onto carriages and horses and wended its way ceremoniously through the streets, accompanied by the foremost officials and military figures of the state. The mehter band of the janissary corps played marches all the way, and when the procession reached the groom's mansion or palace, he took delivery of the trousseau, and presented gifts to the officials accompanying the procession.
Although there are no sultan's daughters or trousseau processions today, the custom of displaying the trousseau lives on in rural areas, where the bride's trousseau is displayed for a week or sometimes two prior to the wedding. Known as "çeyiz yayma" (spreading the trousseau), the display is no simple matter, requiring the expertise of women known as "askıcı", who lay out and hang up each piece according to strict rules.
Throwing a handful of black cumin seeds and cloves into the saucepans is essential, for example, both to protect against the envious evil eye and to ensure that the marriage lasts. Since they symbolize separation, handkerchiefs are never part of the trousseau. In eastern parts of the country it is customary to place sugar cutters in the bottom of the trousseau chest. In these regions tea is widely drunk and the cutters are used to cut the hard loaf sugar into lumps.
The display of the trousseau is quite a nerve-racking time for the bride-to-be, as neighbors and relatives come to admire but also perhaps to criticize her handiwork and taste. Young girls are eager to get ideas for their own trousseaus. In all, the trousseau provides a subject of conversation throughout the week or two it is on display.
The trousseau also includes garments made for the groom, such as patterned socks, hand sewn shirts, pyjamas with gold embroidery, and scarves with needle lace edging, and these are inspected with particular interest, as they are taken as a measure of the girl's love for her future husband. In return for these gifts the groom will give the bride a valuable necklace or other piece of jewelry known as the "yüz görümlülüğü", literally "seeing the face", marking the point in the ceremony when she reveals her face to him.
When the trousseau is displayed a list of the items is drawn up by a trusted friend of both families. In the event of divorce, all the possessions on the list will be returned to the girl. When the list has been approved by both families, it is placed in the trousseau chest. Mother-in-laws in Turkish folk tales who refuse to let their daughter-in-laws have their trousseaus back are the equivalent of the wicked step mothers in western tales.
Just as the trousseau symbolizes the honor of the bride's family, so the jewelry given by the groom is the honor of his family. The trousseau is minutely judged and classified by the fineness of the lace, the intricacy of the needle lace, the quality of the cloth and china, and whether the cutlery is real silver or not.
Although today the trousseau chest has been replaced by cupboards and drawers, the trousseau itself is alive and well. Only the amount of factory made items has increased.
The Bohemian crystal glasses, Viennese porcelain dinner services, silver bath bowls and slippers that featured in the trousseaus of Ottoman girls from wealthy families have gone, but the sheets, towels and other items for the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, adorned with handmade lace and crochet work are still among the most valued parts of a girl's trousseau.
The silver candlesticks, gilded bowls, beaten copper trays, and openwork coffee sets of the last century have been replaced by television sets, washing machines, dishwashers, and other electrical appliances.
The traditional trousseau contained satin quilts stuffed with wool, mattresses, feather pillows, sheets, silver bath sets, silver embroidered towels, a sewing box, coffee set, crystal glasses, a dozen patterned socks, embroidered satin prayer rugs, prayer beads, lace edged scarves, house slippers and dressing gowns for the bride and groom, night dresses for the bride wrapped in a gold embroidered wrapper, tablecloths, napkins, crochet and lace mats, and crocheted curtains. So the marriage begins with the delight of arranging these in the couple's new home, and enjoying all the finery so carefully collected and created over the years.
Ayşe Önal is a journalist.