Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  May 18, 2020

Orientalism, Exoticism and Cultural Exchange in 19th Century Western Dress (Part 1)

by Chelsey Lewington

From the second half of the 20th Century, the relationship that has defined the West and the Middle East has been a very complicated one. It is one that is, in very simplistic terms, dominated by the United States, Russia and the Cold War, oil, conflicts and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (1).  Two hundred years ago, however, the relationship between the East and West was completely different. It was one based on the trading of goods between three domains, the British, the French and the Ottoman Empire. There was also a cultural exchange, which consisted of ideas on society and dress, between the three empires. This exchange, however, was “a British and French cultural enterprise, a project whose dimensions take in such disparate realms as the imagination itself” (2). It led to the development of the British and French Empires looking at the Ottomans as the exotic ‘other’. Exoticism is a term that denotes a quality of something/someone being unusual and exciting because it/they come from, or seems to be from, a faraway place whilst Orientalism is a much more loaded and complicated term (3). 

In 1978, Edward Said’s influential text ‘Orientalism’ was published. In it he outlined his concept which is “a way of coming to terms with the Orient [any place that is East of Europe] that is based on the Orient’s special place in European Western experience” (4). Orientalism is a way in which we [mainly those from the Occident which is the countries of the West] have come to envisage the ‘East’. It is a concept based on colonialist thinking that is full of fantastical notions and exotic stereotypes. Said states that this concept had a “particular closeness experienced by Britain and France with the Orient, which until the 19th Century had really meant only India and the Bible Lands” (5). This is why I have chosen to look into the 19th Century because this is where we see the origins of orientalism and exoticism when looking at the history of Middle Eastern dress. This topic will be explored through looking at the Industrial and textile revolutions, Egyptomania, paintings, cultural movements and cultural shifts. 

Before we get into looking at dress, we must briefly outline what was going on with each of the Empires at the time. Firstly, the Ottoman Empire was a state and caliphate which had territories across North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East from the 15th Century (6). Britain and France, however, were still building their empires. It was with this empire building that the fascination with the East, as a whole, really began. It culminated with Napoleons invasion of Egypt in 1798 (figure 1) which was not only a military disaster for the Ottomans, but it became a significantly important cultural event for the French (7).

Alongside 34,000 officers, Napoleon also decided to bring approximately 1,000 citizens which were made up of scholars, poets and painters (8). At this time the paintings and photographs that were produced throughout the 19th Century became extremely popular with Europeans. They were traditionally done by male Western artists who wanted to satisfy the curiosity that people back home had in the lands of the Middle East and North Africa (9). The subject of paintings consisted of places, ‘typical’ street life, faith and the most interesting of all which was their perception of the Ottomans. Orientalist painters were particularly interested in the different regions and social groups of the Middle East, but they also liked to paint themselves (figure 2) in colourful local dress as a way to appear ‘unusual’ and ‘different’ like their subjects (10). This, combined with other cultural events, like the publication of Richard Francis Burton’s One Thousand and One Nights (1886-1888), helped to fire up the cultural imagination of the French which led to the original Egyptomania movement that swept across the West (11).

Meanwhile in Britain, the biggest change to occur in the 19th Century was the Industrial Revolution. The sewing machine, which made its way into the homes of millions in the 1850s, made possible the idea of ready-to-wear garments that eventually became a reality which changed the entire production of Western clothing (12). These events led to the textile and fashion industries catering to the growing bourgeoisie market (13). At this time Western fashion in high society was very restrictive and highly codified. After 1815, women’s dress returned to a more restrictive torso through the corset, longer skirts, crinolines and bustles whilst men’s fashion became even more rigid with a limited range of fabrics to choose from and an exquisite fit of clothes made by the right tailor (14).

It was also a style, like most of them at the time, which came from the fashion capital of the world, France (15). The fabled tales and stylised dress of the Ottoman Empire eventually made its way from France to the UK. Ottoman dress, however, was usually executed in these countries through fancy dress. As exhibited by the picture of Queen Victoria on her 10th birthday (figure 3) her Turquerie, a style in fashion that uses Turkish design influences, was extremely fashionable (16). Her outfit also features oya (Turkish lace) around the headscarf and coat (17). Fancy dress parties are usually a form of escapism and this parties are quite prevalent in the affluent society of the 19th Century. Fancy dress allowed them to indulge in the fantasy of being someone else, in this case an ‘exotic’, ‘free’ and colourfully dressed person like they would see in the Ottoman Empire.

This idea of Ottoman dress providing freedom was explored in the lives of affluent Westerners who lived in the Ottoman Empire during the 19th Century. The French were already sending boys between the ages of 12-16 to ‘Oriental School’ where they would learn Arabic or Turkish as well as the basics on Ottoman history. They were then sent to the Empire the moment that they turned sixteen (18). The Reasoning behind this was for the French Merchants to have their godsons or nephews set up business links on their behalf, as they believed having the boys embrace the culture made the Ottomans more likely to trade with them. This, however, spectacularly backfired when they decided to adopt Ottoman culture through drinking at coffee houses, speaking Arabic or Turkish and adopting Ottoman dress. They would pair their French military trousers with turbans (figure 4), for example, and some would adopt the style of dress completely (19).

Ottoman dress was also explored by the early feminists who visited and/or lived in the Ottoman Empire. European women originally dressed in Turkish costume as a fantastical way to amuse their husbands and lovers, but this ‘dressing up’ actually led to them questioning the lack of freedoms that they have at home (20). Ottoman women, their dress and legal rights were admired by many European women who were interested in feminist reform in their own countries (21). Writers such as Julia Pardoe, Isabel Burton, Anne Blunt, Isabel Bird Bishop and Fanny Janet Blunt noted the advantages Muslim women in the Empire had when it came to legal property, marital and family rights (22). Some European women, however, decided to go a step further. One such woman was Lady Hester Stanhope (figure 5), the niece of Prime Minister William Pitt. Unlike most women at the time Lady Stanhope had independent means to travel and took her first journey to the Ottoman Empire in 1810. She eventually settled near Sidon (what is now Lebanon) and never returned, adopting Turkish dress as an expression of her autonomy (23). Another, and more well-known woman, was Amelia Bloomer and her eponymous ‘bloomers’. Bloomers are actually ‘Turkish trousers’ and Amelia Bloomer was not the only woman to suggest that the garment should be used as a symbol of reforming Western dress. The feminist cohort across Europe wanted to equate the Turkish costume with the perception of superior legal situation and relative freedom of Turkish women which they hoped would be translated back home. This, however, was not the case as the conservative members of Western society saw the garment as a masculine preservative instead (24).

Increasingly during the 19th Century the viewpoints of the West towards the Ottoman Empire turned negative. The life and culture of the Ottomans were seen as ‘Islamic’ and was discussed solely as Arab and Persian culture (25). The image of the Turk that pervaded Western thinking was as ‘the sick man of Europe’ (26). The admiration of the Ottoman Empire faded so the West decided to create a fantastical version of their own. This line of thinking, especially with Ottoman dress and its relationship with fancy dress, is still prevalent today. It came back around in fashion during the 1910s with Paul Poiret’s lavish parties and the discovery of Tutankhamun in the 1920s. Egyptomania came back in the 1920s and was explored in films such as Cecile B. DeMille’s Biblical epics and Theda Bara as Cleopatra (27). The most famous case of Orientalism when it comes to Western ideas around the Middle East is Disney’s 1992 ‘Aladdin’. Hundreds of Middle Eastern costumes made today are directly designed from the Disney hit and even in the 21st Century ‘Arabian Night’ parties are still prevalent (see Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s infamous ‘brownface’ (28)). Within the last twenty years, the relationship the West has had with Middle Eastern dress is quite different. The ‘othering’ of Middle Eastern dress is still extremely apparent today, but despite this, there are more questions than answers around the meanings, symbolism and significance of Middle Eastern dress.

References:
(1) I know that I am putting it in extremely simple terms but that is because this is not the focus of what I am writing about. Here, however, are two books which explain these concepts extremely well. Mitchell, T. (2011) Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. 2nd edn. London and New York: Verso Books and Mamdani, M. (2004) Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. South Africa: UNISA Press.(2) Said, E. (1978, this edn. 2019) Orientalism Reissued Penguin Classics edn. London: Penguin, p.4(3) Cambridge University Press, Date Unknown.  Definition of Exoticism, Cambridge Dictionary, viewed 9 March 2020 <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/exoticism>.
(4) Said, Orientalism, p.1
(5) Said, Orientalism, pg.4
(6) Rose, C. and Petzen, B., [2013] 15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire Part I, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-26-history-of-the-ottoman-empire-part-i/> [re-accessed 9th March 2020.]
(7) Jirousek, C. and Catterall, S. (2019) Ottoman Dress and Design in the West 1st edn. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press, p.193 and 195.
(8) Jirousek, Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, p. 195.(9) Tugwell, J., 9 October 2019. An Introduction to Orientalist Painting, British Library, Viewed 9th March 2020.< https://blog.britishmuseum.org/an-introduction-to-orientalist-painting/> and Unknown Author, 10 December 1978. Egyptomania, 1850s Style, The New York Times, Viewed 9th March 2020. <https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/10/archives/egyptomania-1850s-style.html>
(10) Tugwell, J., An Introduction to Orientalist Painting
(11) Cooligan, C. 2002, ‘”Esoteric Pornography”: Sir Richard Burtons’ Arabian Nights and the Origins of Pornography’, Victorian Review, vol.28, no.2, pg.31.
(12) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 187.
(13) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 186.
(14) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 187-190.
(15) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 187.(16) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 227.
(17) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 187.
(18) Rose, C. and Gossard, J., (2018) 15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 103: French Child Ambassadors in the East, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-103-french-child-ambassadors-in-the-east/> [re-accessed 14h March 2020.]
(19) Rose, C. and Gossard, J., 15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 103: French Child Ambassadors in the East.
(20) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 202.
(21) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 202.
(22) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 202-203.(23) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 204.
(24) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 204-205.
(25) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 195.
(26) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 196.
(27) Jirousek, C. Ottoman Dress and Design in the West, pg. 220.
(28)  Kambhampaty, A. P., Carlisle, M. and Chan, M. September 19 2019. Justin Trudeau Wore Brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ Party While He Taught at a Private School’. Viewed 14th March 2020 < https://time.com/5680759/justin-trudeau-brownface-photo/>
 

Bibliography/ Further Reading:
[1] Cambridge University Press, Date Unknown.  Definition of Exoticism, Cambridge Dictionary, viewed 9 March 2020 <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/exoticism>.
[2] Cooligan, C. 2002, ‘”Esoteric Pornography”: Sir Richard Burtons’ Arabian Nights and the Origins of Pornography’, Victorian Review, vol.28, no.2.
[3] Jirousek, C. and Catterall, S. (2019) Ottoman Dress and Design in the West 1st edn. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press.
[4] Kambhampaty, A. P., Carlisle, M. and Chan, M. September 19 2019. Justin Trudeau Wore Brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ Party While He Taught at a Private School’. Viewed 14th March 2020 < https://time.com/5680759/justin-trudeau-brownface-photo/>
[5] Rose, C. and Gossard, J., (2018) 15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 103: French Child Ambassadors in the East, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-103-french-child-ambassadors-in-the-east/>
[6] Rose, C. and Petzen, B., [2013] 15 Minute History [podcast], Episode 26: History of the Ottoman Empire Part I, Available at: <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-103-french-child-ambassadors-in-the-east/> <https://15minutehistory.org/podcast/episode-26-history-of-the-ottoman-empire-part-i/> [re-accessed 9th March 2020.]
[7] Said, E. (1978, this edn. 2019) Orientalism Reissued Penguin Classics edn. London: Penguin
[8] Tugwell, J., 9 October 2019. An Introduction to Orientalist Painting, British Library, Viewed 9th March 2020 < https://blog.britishmuseum.org/an-introduction-to-orientalist-painting/>
[9] Unknown Author, 10 December 1978. Egyptomania, 1850s Style, The New York Times, Viewed 9th March 2020.
[10] Jirousek, C. and Catterall, S. (2019) Ottoman Dress and Design in the West 1st edn. Bloomington, Indiana, USA: Indiana University Press.


  • 1. Bonaparte Before the Sphinx by Jean-Leon Gerome (ca. 1867-1868.)
  • 2. John Frederick Lewis, an English artist, depicts himself in Middle Eastern Dress. Portrait of a Memlook Bey (1863.)
  • 3. Victoria, Princess Royal in Turkish Costume by Sir William Ross (1850).
  • 4. Un Zouave which highlights the mixing of Ottoman and French military dress. (1888.)
  • 5. Lady Hester Stanhope, who called herself ‘Queen of the Desert.’ By Robert Jacob Hamerton (ca. 1830s.)