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:
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.