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