Given Sea of Marmara’s slimy gray surface, the suffocated corals and threatened marine life underneath, it does seem a bit Marie-Antoinettesque to pine about a perfectly cut monokini. But it is just what I, and some of my less hedonistic friends, are doing after Turkey’s first international beachwear mark, Zeki Triko, shuttered its last shop standing in Nişantaşı, Istanbul last week. (If you are a non-Turk, just imagine Carrie Bradshaw learning that Christian Louboutin will no longer make shoes.)
Given the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) record of irrational, unjust, and often bungled bans, it is easy to pin the fall of Zeki Triko on the government’s policy of preventing swimwear billboards, as the usual twitter-flutter did. But the closure has more to do with its long-standing management problems in the family business, particularly after its nonagenarian founder, the outrageously creative Zeki Başesgioğlu, bowed out of the management.
But this is the right moment to pay homage to Başeskioğlu and his tireless- and cheeky- struggle as conservative mayors of Istanbul - from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (RTE) in the 1990s to Kadir Toptaş in the 2000s - played a cat-and-mouse game with the bikini billboards in public space. From the 1980s on, the Zeki ads were the Pirelli Calendar of Turkey: top models from Naomi Campbell to Eva Herzegovina, in deeply cut monokinis or saucy microkinis, stretched their willowy silhouettes on a Barbados beach.
But in the mid-1990s, RTE, then the mayor of Istanbul, started obstructing the billboards. Angry with fights over just how many meters of bare flesh was offensive, Başeskioğlu decided in 1997 to run an ad with a black-and-white photo of Turkey’s founder Kemal Ataturk in his bathing trunks, with the slogan “We’ve missed the sun” - hinting that the conservative Welfare Party, with whose ticket Erdoğan became Istanbul mayor, was dragging the country into darkness.
With Erdoğan’s departure from power in 1998, Zeki’s colorful billboards of bathing beauties re-graced the streets, malls, and airports, until in 2003, when a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca allegedly complained of the topless figure of Adriana Karembau at Istanbul Airport’s International Arrivals Hall. The airport authorities took the offensive ad down.
Adriana’s put-down was a sign of worse to come. The next year, when Başeskioğlu - and other swimwear producers - wanted to have their giant billboards up in the city, they were warned to “use images that would not offend the public decency.” The message was clear: none of those itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bikinis.
Başeskioğlu retorted by taking down the bikinis and replacing them with phallic vegetables - eggplant and cucumber. (For those who do not speak the language, a cucumber in Turkish is the equivalent of a Yiddish putz, French con, and English dickhead.)
Neither did he mince his words in interviews, bitterly complaining that though municipalities and other authorities claimed publicly that there was no “formal” ban on bikini billboards, they kept finding excuses not to put them up. “I can put my ads in 20 cities, alas, not in Istanbul,” Başeskioğlu once complained, while another businessman mocked the local authorities for claiming that the ads were causing traffic accidents.
By the mid-2010s, both local swimwear companies and foreign ones trying to break into the Turkish market, such as Tesco’s F&F, knew better than showing too much skin on city billboards, so they made sure that the bikini-clad model had a chic sarong or a shirt over the bikini.
So here are just a few, mostly Istanbulcentric, notes on Turks’ relationship with the sea, beaches and bathing suits:
Though surrounded by the sea, the Ottoman Empire was hardly a nation of bathers and swimmers. A recent exhibition in Istanbul’s Pera Museum says that the sea baths - rickety wooden boxes built over the sea on water-resistant wooden poles, became common with the Westernization efforts of the 19th century. But traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote that there were peshtemal-clad male swimmers in Istanbul’s Kumkapi and in rivers all around the country as early as the 17th century. These, of course, were all working-class males. Neither women of any social class nor the well-off ever tried swimming until mid 18th century.
These “sea baths,” which seemed like closed boxes from the outside, were connected to the land by platform bridges and were divided into two groups: Public and private. Private sea baths usually belonged to seaside mansions; public sea baths were larger, seasonal constructions. Sea baths, used separately by women and men, and highly monitored, might well be the forefather of segregated beaches of today. Women wore long dark dresses and men wore the peshtemal.
The forefathers of the beach - and swimwear - that resembled what we see today came thanks to the White Russian immigrants escaping the communism in Russia from the 1920s onward. Not only did they wear bathing suits but they swam together as a sociological change took over the city.
Thessaloniki-born Kemal Atatürk loved the sun and the sea (Then why establish the capital in landlocked Ankara, right?) and did not mind posing for photographers while sunbathing in dark trunks and chic sandals. His second-in-command İsmet İnönü wore a one-piece speed suit, often under a striped bathrobe.
Women came to beaches in the late 1920s - in knitted one-piece bathing suits, or colorfully patterned clothes that they had sown themselves. Lycra was still scarce. In more humble public beaches, women wore dresses and boys just went in their underwear. In chicer beaches, beachgoers would sip their beer as top performers sang on.
The heydey of the Istanbul beaches ended in the 1960s, as over-population, pollution of the Marmara and landfills to build a major road on the Asian side started. During my childhood in Caddebostan on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, we simply got up and rushed to the sea in front of the house. By the time I was 17, the sea was far too polluted to go in. The mayor of the 1980s, Bedrettin Dalan had pledged to make Bosporus as blue as his eyes again and put an end to pollution.
Neither he nor his successors managed to do so.