The Turkish trousers that took a detour to Japan

It’s summer again in the Northern Hemisphere, and in temperate climates that means the exotic harem trousers are back on people’s legs. I write ‘exotic’ because harem trousers have for long been considered exotic by various different groups of people. North Americans have associated them with the Dutch, western Europeans with Turks, townspeople with fishermen… In each instance they were imagined to come from afar, and they always found fascination in the eyes of their observers.

I wrote a short article about this on web magazine The Low Countries, but one example I did not explore there is perhaps even more surprising for North American and European readers:

Detail of Japanese gunpowder flask (c. 1600-1650), Ashmolean Museum Oxford, no. EA1983.243.

This gunpowder flask is Japanese. The figures depicted on it are Portuguese. In the seventeenth century, Portuguese merchants-soldiers were among the first Europeans to visit Japan in noticeable numbers. Their Japanese hosts were interested in their gunpowder weapons, but as the flask shows they were also interested – or amused, at least, by the clothes the Portuguese wore. This flask therefore presented a fashionable item on the Japanese accessory market; practical perhaps, but perhaps also a little gizmo-y.

So here it was the Portuguese who were portrayed as exotic to Japanese buyers. The West as exotic – the reverse of the orientalism which Europeans have been steeping in for the past four hundred years: something that western Eurasians should perhaps get used to again.

Yet something more is going on with the baggy trousers on this flask. For baggy trousers were not just Portuguese, in the seventeenth century. The Spanish were wearing them at the same time. And the Dutch, who became famous for it in North American history books. And those fishermen, who started wearing them around the same time and liked them so much they kept wearing them for centuries to come. In fact, all of fashionable Europe was wearing baggy trousers, in various short- and long-legged variations. Other forms again were worn across Asia. In the region roughly in the centre of Eurasia, they were so important they had names of their own: şalvar in Turkish, šalvâr in Persian…

… and that’s of course where to find the heart of this story of baggy trousers. ‘All’ of Asia and Europe was wearing them in the seventeenth century, because in the seventeenth century the Turkish and Iranian empires were peaking in geographic extent and cultural influence. These empires, their cultures, their travellers, were so important that their trousers came to be seen and copied everywhere. What may have been exotic before, for a while became a global fashion.

Yet like all fashions and empires, these, too, lost much of their hold on the world. The trousers survived in many smaller pockets of the globe, or as part of the image people had of exotic strangers. They survived like shells left behind on a beach by the waves, shells which populated the area when the tide was out, but which are now to be found in a few sheltered places only. Until the next real big wave.


My article about knickerbockers, Zuiderzee fishermen and Ottoman harems can be found on The Low Countries.

Full photographic reproductions of the gunpowder flask can be viewed on the Ashmolean Museum’s own website. Above, I have used a detail of a low-resolution image to make a (small) argument about fashion history, believing this to be a form of Fair Dealing with copyrighted material.


Travel hygiene? A toilet in your suitcase

In these times of peak hygiene sensitivity caused by the fear of the current coronavirus, travel is suddenly turned into a suspect activity. After centuries in which travel was considered highly desirable and a top status booster in the European cultural world, its attractiveness seems to have plummeted quickly, if hopefully only temporarily, and it has now reassumed its former reputation of being a dangerous undertaking.

On the relation between hygiene and travel: here’s something wealthy travellers used to take with them in a time when European travel was only just becoming more respectable:


‘Koffer-Toilette’ (18th c.) in the former online exhibition Kofferlexikon, Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin​, retrieved 30 Oct. 2014


It’s a leather-seated portable toilet. From the eighteenth century. Before trains and planes and all that. It’s foldable, and it comes with its own suitcase.

This was a wonderfully weird item to me when I, born and raised in twentieth-century Europe, first encountered it. And it tells us so much about its users:

  1. that some travellers took the trouble to carry their own furniture around with them – or rather, that they asked their servants to do so;
  2. that apparently they were more at ease on their own seat than on those provided by their hosts. And no, they did not go wild camping, although that’s perhaps what it felt like for an eighteenth-century aristocrat to stay over with farmers or at a local inn;
  3. that they had elaborate items made just for this purpose. This is of course what tourists still do nowadays, but how about the following:
  4. that a leather seat in a leather case counted as hygienic to them, or at least hygienic enough, and certainly at least as hygienic as the ceramic bowls or wooden planks they would encounter abroad. This is different now: most wealthy Europeans now prefer ceramics, plastics, woods or other hard non-porous materials for bathroom items;
  5. and, as a final point for now, that in the eighteenth century, already, it was the acme of civilisation and health for Europeans to sit down on a funny seat with a hole in it. They rather did this than squat, and they still rather do this, even though squatting has probably been the standard across world history (there’s a whole history to be written here, which will hopefully be my third book).

All in all, this eighteenth-century lavatory trunk shows that Europeans have gone through some significant shifts in the balance they preferred to strike between comfort and hygiene, even though some strange habits have also stayed the same.

You’ll find the rest of this story on web magazine The Low Countries, where I link this to the history of carpets (hm) …

If these things interest you, you’ll find a whole host of stories and analyses on everyday life and the ‘stuff’ travellers used, in my book, once it comes out.

And although the Technikmuseum’s suitcase exhibition seems no longer to be online, you can find a wonderful demonstration of their suitcase-making manufactory on their website.

More posts on toilets here, on cleanliness here, and of course on travel history across this site.


Brexit day / January 1864

I recently read a travel account by an English traveller that I couldn’t help but relate to what is going on in England now.

Brexit has finally happened. And a lot can be said about the people who voted for. But how can the poor Brits of today – and many of them are poor – how can they get it right, if even their wealthy forefathers often got it wrong?

Here’s a tiny example of what I mean.

John Addington Symonds (1840–1893) was a poet and a cultural historian. A man of considerable financial means, he got his education at Oxford. He was one of the most cosmopolitan Englishmen of his day, making frequent European journeys and living in Switzerland for years. Today, he is perhaps most famous for his praise and defence of love between men, although he also struggled with his feelings of same-sex attraction, and while falling in love with women several times in his life. Not your typical parochial navel-gazer, therefore. But all things are relative.

Symonds by an unknown photographer (late 1850s), Victoria and Albert Museum, PH.222-1983.

This well-read and well-travelled man, with his privileged education and his foreign-language skills, stayed in Rome for over a month in the winter of 1863–1864. And he wrote of this stay:

Stephens and I stayed at Rome until the 27th of January, seeing few people except George Miller, Richard Congreve, Dr Bridges, and the sculptor Story.

Few people? In Rome? For the duration of a month? Apparently neither local Italian women or (even) men, nor travellers from other countries, qualified as people. Or perhaps Symonds acknowledged their presence but did not consider them people that one ‘saw’. Meanwhile, the many professionals whom he must have seen during this period – the servants in the hotels where he stayed, the shopkeepers, the cooks, the waiters providing him with his other necessities –  did not count either.

All that counted were three Englishmen and a British American.

I know: easy for me to be flabbergasted, from my position as a non-English European. But my flabbergastation (Punch, 1856) might have been even greater had I not heard many similar pronouncements during the past ten years or so of having lived in England.

Perhaps it’s worth pondering, therefore, whether Symonds’s attitude is a mere incidental slip, the kind made by well-meaning people the world over; or whether it betrays a strain deeply embedded in English culture.

And if we go for the second interpretation, we might need to acknowledge that it requires an effort on the part of the ‘ordinary’ English voter to break away from this type of thinking. That does not relieve the Brexiteer from the responsibility to be a tad more open to other folk, learn their languages, watch their movies… But it has implications for the way the rest of Europe might most fruitfully approach the Brexit voter.

The excerpt is from The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, p. 239, edited by my colleague Amber K. Regis and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.


Slow Living: A Paradise Lost?

Do you frequently feel rushed? See the appeal of the Slow Movement? You are not alone.

A harried White Rabbit from Carroll and Tenniel’s Nursery Alice (London: Macmillan, 1890), digitised by the British Library.

To give an example from just one country in the world – a country that, incidentally, scores high in the happiness indexes: the Dutch, too, live a stressful life. Their national institute for social research reports that they have difficulty combining work, care, education and leisure. Many always feel behind schedule.

When under such pressure, it is not uncommon to envy one’s ancestors’ slower-paced lifestyle. Because this is often said: that the culprit of our stress is the acceleration of modern life. Before the arrival of smartphones, cars and steam engines, of highly regimented work hours and the capitalist fear of wasting our time, we kept a considerably lower pace. And even if we are aware that the trade-offs of going back in time may include having a more repetitive job, fewer possessions, fewer modern conveniences and a more limited social circle, we sometimes crave that old-life simplicity.

But has stress really become normalised only recently? I try to answer this question in an article for web magazine The Low Countries. The article looks at the diaries of four travellers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Based on my research into these and related texts, I argue that many people were in fact already anxious about their own efficiency even before the Industrial Revolution. They had ambitious schedules and constantly felt they needed to catch up with their own rushed lives. Interested? Please read on on The Low Countries.


Coming from afar (Or: watching trains go by)

Earlier, I wrote about the meanings of distance for travellers on the early railways. But what did distance mean for those who observed the new engines on wheels from the outside, as they came thundering past?

An important painting from the 1880s addresses precisely this question. ‘Il vient de loin’ – he/it comes from afar – by Dutch impressionist Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël has at least three things to say about distance.

P.J.C. Gabriël, ‘Il vient de loin’, Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, the Netherlands, no. KM 100.143.


Most obviously, this painting problematizes progress. Many visual and literary artworks of the nineteenth century set up a dichotomy between tradition and progress, between nature and technology, between a supposedly static country-side and a dynamic industrial sector. Some artists were enthusiastic about technological developments, others critical, a third group ambiguous.

Gabriël, too, clearly referred to these contemporary concerns in his work. Not for nothing, Gabriël’s painting is reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s famous ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which like many works of its time emphasised both the beauty and the threat of steam technology.

Take even just Gabriël’s title. It makes sense to read this from the perspective of the angler resting against the gate in this Dutch polder landscape: representing the local and the traditional, the angler sees the train ‘coming from afar’. Indeed, the technology of steam locomotion arrived in continental Europe from across the sea: developed in Britain, steam trains may initially have been considered an exotic technology in the rest of Europe. The steam engines used on the early Dutch railways even continued to be imported from Britain for quite some time, for lack of a local industry.

Of course, ‘afar’ may refer to the individual train in the picture, too. The angler looks like he has just come sauntering into the scene from a nearby farmstead. Within his frame of reference, it might be argued, the train has already travelled a lot of track before entering into view – although we are probably talking about a few tens or hundreds of kilometres at most. Trains cross vast distances; farmers and fisher-people stay put, the painting seems to say.

In all these cases, the new technology can be read as an alien presence in this landscape, and if this was indeed the predominant perception in the 1880s, we should not be too surprised if the railways occasionally met with a hostile reception.

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, National Gallery UK, no. NG538. Available on Wikimedia Commons.


What makes this painting interesting, however, is its ambiguity: who exactly is coming from afar? Rather than the train, the title could refer to the angler.

This interpretation makes a lot of sense if we follow the painter’s cue to look at the angler: an Everyman. It is he who comes from afar. That is: humankind has got far: from humbly hunting for food, through shaping the land to make it suitable for farming, to the modern industrial economy. This second interpretation sits equally comfortably with prevalent nineteenth-century views. And so, when looking at the steam engine, the angler is really looking at his own achievements, perhaps pondering whether they please him.


But possibly the most interesting view this painting offers on distances has little to do with nineteenth-century debates. Instead, it has everything to do with a sensation that cannot have been unique to the nineteenth century.

We see: a polder landscape. A canal in the middle. On the right: anglers, some ducks. On the left: a telegraph line, the approaching train still in the distance. And two thirds of the painting: sky. A single vanishing point, a simple composition.

What’s more, the entire picture is permeated by the single element of water. The sky is filled with clouds, the air with steam; the land is bisected by a canal and the earth saturated with groundwater. The anglers find their food in the water; the travellers power their movement with the help of water turned into steam. This is a thoroughly wet scene, a scene with much less contrast or conflict than for instance Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.

And so, everything about this balanced picture speaks quiet. (Apart perhaps from the already restlessly vertical telegraph poles.)

Yet we know the train is coming. Its approaching cloud of steam seems to progressively envelop the land. Not just that, but it moves from the central vanishing point to the front of the scene. It gets all the attention, that of the angler as well as ours.

It will enter the landscape and for a brief moment be at its very foreground, dominating the scene with its noise and its steam, its hard wheels on the track, its smells and its black body towering on the embankment; for a few seconds the angler resting against the gate will hear or see nothing but the train… and then it’ll be gone.

It is this ephemerality, the fleeting quality of this sensation of a train passing by, that Gabriël pictures. He pictures not just the brief moment of the train’s overwhelming presence, but also its absence on either side of that moment.

‘Coming from afar’ then means: being there for an instance only, and soon belonging to another place again.

It is a sensation we know all too well, and one that overlaps with some of the sensations had by people on a train.

And so, in the same decade of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published his memorable ‘From a Railway Carriage’:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887. Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!


This post grew from my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019).

It was also published on the website of the Hakluyt Society.