Turkish women shocked at restrictive British clothing

Orientalising images of women’ s clothing are common enough. But how about occidentalist views?

A photo of an Egyptian street scene, taken by the European G. Lekegian & Co. This photo is easily interpreted in an orientalist frame, denying the women on the wagon any agency. I know little about Egyptian life around 1900, but perhaps these women were just taking the bus? (collection Rijksmuseum Prentenkabinet)

Many Europeans and North-Americans regard Muslim women who wear a veil with an orientalist eye. This means that they see them as specimens from outlandish and traditionalist Asian and north-African cultures that differ fundamentally from their own. Often, these women are regarded as the victims of Muslim men, who are thought either to force them to wear a veil, or against whom they would need their veil as a symbolic protection. (But see this interesting short documentary from Pakistan.)

Such European orientalist interpretations of cultures in North Africa, Asia, and indeed south-eastern Europe itself, stretch back several centuries.

Now from 1716 to 1718, as this orientalism was gaining ground, a wealthy English woman made a famous journey to south-eastern Europe. Mary Wortley Montagu joined her husband on a diplomatic and trade mission to the Ottoman Empire. In Sofia, then part of this empire, she visited a bath house. (The beautiful public baths still existing in Sofia all seem to be much younger, from around 1900.)

A bath house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme  (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl (now in the University of Istanbul; repro from Wikimedia).

A bath-house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl, late 18th century. Now in the University of Istanbul; reprod. from Wikimedia.

Montagu noted three things while there. First: the women were ‘stark naked’ and presented a beautiful sight; a sight, she suggested, as one might see on an Italian Renaissance painting. Second: for the women, the bath house fulfilled the social function of a coffee-house. Third: the women did not mock Montagu’s foreign habits, as western-European women would have done, but welcomed her politely.

I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming. (Letter xxvi from the collection she edited after her return to England, published online by Jack Lynch.)

Nevertheless, the Sofia women demonstrated a slight streak of reverse ‘orientalism’, that is, occidentalism.

They tried to convince Montagu to join them in their bath. But Montagu found it only self-evident that, as an Englishwoman, she could not expose herself. She excused herself – in vain. In the end, she stripped up to her stays.

probably North American

Stays, c. 1750-60, probably North American

This had the desired effect.

they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband

The Sofia women easily convinced themselves, it seems, that she had been ‘locked up’ in her stays by her husband. Pityingly, they allowed her to keep her clothes on.


Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.


[A]lmost the same but not quite


Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men’: colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized’:

Mimicry is […] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which […] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?


Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.


Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.


Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.


Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?


Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.