Gilded Serpent presents...
Review: "Allure of the East:
Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930"

at the New York Historical Society
by Thalia

On the 30th anniversary of the publication of Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism, the Tate Britain has launched an exhibition titled, "Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting."  The show and its catalog have provoked much intellectual discussion for and against the controversial aesthetic, most notably in the online newspaper, the Guardian.   In the United States, less is being made over this anniversary.  There is however a cultural exhibition at the New York Historical Society “Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York 1850-1930.”  

This small one-room exhibit with its narrow geographic focus--the city O. Henry dubbed “Baghdad-on-the-Subway”--presents much for dancers to consider.  As belly dance continues to gain popularity, what is this continuing "allure" of the Orientalist inspired arts?  When is attraction to this aesthetic drawn from a desire to understand other cultures and when is it driven by desire to market ourselves?

In the 19th century, Orientalist fashion swept through the United States in a distinctly different way than it did in the colonizing empires of France and England.  The United States had only recently been a colony, would struggle through the conflicts of a bloody Civil War, and was anxious to prove itself to the European elite.   Immediately obvious to viewers of this exhibit is that the Orientalist aesthetic in the United States was primarily one of industry and commodity rather than what is often considered "high" art:  literature, painting, and music.  American painters who did work in the Orientalist vein were inspired by French schools of painting rather than the subject matter portrayed.  For New York City's leisure class, the 19th century Orientalist trend served as a means to display their wealth via “exotic” clothing, jewelry, architecture, and rugs and other interior furnishings. 

Photographs provide a glimpse of a self-contained, newly rich, and rather naïve looking society.  Interior quarters of wealthy homes include "Turkish corners" with piles of pillows, ornate woodwork, and painted tiles.  Elaborate exterior architectural details from this period still form part of the city's daily landscape.  A second group of photographs and paintings depict New York socialites dressed for popular Orientalist themed balls and masquerades including the famous Vanderbilt Ball in 1883.  Serious, Victorian-era business men pose in turbans, caftans, and the occasional saber.  Women wearing stiff organza veils, tight vests, and elaborately jeweled headgear stand or recline in popular "odalisque" fashion despite the confines of tightly cinched waistlines and somber expressions.   A family portrait of the Gerard Stuyvesant Family (c. 1850) includes husband and wife in Victorian era dress with two young boys in wide pleated pants, one with a feathered turban, the other a tasseled fez.  Mrs. Arthur Henry Paget (Minnie Stevens c. 1875) poses in a sphinx-like headdress along with a Pharaonic girdle just below her corseted waist. 

One exhibition note confirms that while the portrait subject's jewelry is gypsy, her coined head scarf is Egyptian, and that many combined an “unabashed mixing of cultures and styles.” Nineteenth century Orientalist enthusiasts sought to display their social status, personal wealth, and association with high fashion in Europe and to capitalize on the exotic "allure of the East" to draw attention to themselves.

New Yorkers who did travel to the East returned claiming experienced authority on their subjects though they primarily added to European stereotypes already put into place.  Louis Comfort Tiffany's light and wind swept landscapes gave way to stylized silverwork (examples of both are on display) inspired by his experience in the East.  William Cowper Prince explored "the Orient" incognito as Braheem Effendi, writing travel memoirs such as: "Tent Life in the Holy Land" and "Boat Life in Egypt and Nubia."  Popularized in the burgeoning publishing industry, these works rehashed themes already popular and primarily served to make famous their colorful inventor rather than illuminate the Eastern subject matter.  

The popular fascination with the “Oriental warrior," a racist fantasy still trawled through today's media, adds a chilling element to this show. 

A German painting, “The Attack,” romantically portrays Algerian men losing at war.  A museum note adds that savvy Moroccans cashed in on this stereotype, staging "fantasias," mock battles with each other, for paying tourists.  In France, military uniforms and training tactics based on impressions of the Zouaou people came into vogue after the colonial wars in Algeria were won in the 1830s.  This "Zouave" military fashion was transferred to the Civil War era United States.  A well preserved uniform worn in the 5th New York Voluntary Infantry 1861-1863 is displayed:  knee-length pleated pants, a tasseled fez, embroidered vest, a saber, and a wide waist wrap.   In the United States, more than fifty Zouave divisions served in Northern and Southern armies.  Both sides hoped to intimidate and capitalize on popular fantasies and mystique of a perceived barbaric culture.

If the World's Fair Exhibition in Paris in 1878 marked the early apogee of "Orientalist" fashion and aesthetics, the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 perhaps signaled the beginning of its decline.  By this time, Orientalism in the United States had become passé among the elite, appealing instead to a middle class through advertising media and even more so during later Hollywood kitsch.  The aesthetic blatantly meant selling.   In the Ladies Home Journal, an ad with a distinctly Western-looking Cleopatra reads:

“Just as the Egyptian Princess of 3000 years ago bequeathed a heritage of beauty to the modern girl, so did she also hand down knowledge of the surest way to keep it. She knew that Palm and Olive oils were mild, beneficial, natural cleansers, as soothing in their action as a lotion.  A crude combination is all she could command—today she would use Palmolive.” (1918)

Companies marketing Turkish tobacco including Murad included tiny felt rugs in their packaging directed at female collectors and smokers; these are displayed near an ad for Barnum and Bailey Circus featuring a vaudevillian reenactment of a reclining Cleopatra waiting for the return of Mark Antony. 

Though time has schooled us in cultural sensitivity and imbalances caused by money and power (some complain we've become too politically correct), it is eerie to look at Victorian era society women so oddly clad in fantasy Orientalist gear and realize they are wearing costume pieces I or any of my dance peers might wear.

  Instead of bustles and somber expressions, our contemporary hair styles, makeup, sultry smiles, and reverence for thinness and athletic prowess will too look naively dated underneath our Oriental costume pieces.  What is this continuing "allure of the East" for those of us in "the West"?  When are we truly invested in exploring other cultures to deepen our understanding of our human race and when are we merely searching for new ways to capitalize on perceived differences as a means of marketing ourselves? 

"Allure of the East: Orientalism in New York, 1850-1930," a companion to the larger exhibit, “Woven Splendor from Timbuktu to Tibet: Exotic Rug and Textiles from New York Collectors,"
remains on view at the New York Historical Society through August 17, 2008.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
8-1-08 Fantasy Bellydance, A New & Ancient Reality by Jehan
This trend has been growing steadily since I can remember, but caught fire recently, due to the instantaneous broadcasting of ideas and styles on the worldwide web and the proliferation and availability of video for this generation of dancers.

7-24-08 Professional Presence, Stories and Advice from 30 Years Under the Hip Belt and Counting... by Aszmara
The audiences’first glimpse of you is as you arrive and how they see you affects their opinion of your show. First impressions count!

7-8-08 When Two Doors Close Two Doors Open, New Venues in New York City, by Sarah Skinner
Scott was thrilled with the new place and said it reminds him of the late night clubs in Istanbul, Turkey. At the end of the night I walked out into the hot summer air feeling invigorated and inspired.

5-13-08 The Ancient Art of Keeping Your Mouth Shut by Neon
Even one’s casual presence in the forums infested with negative-spirited discussions can instantly strip a successful artist of her magical charisma.

5-5--8 Dances along the Nile, Part 2: Raks Al Balas by Gamila El Masri, Reprinted with permission, from Bennu, Issue Vol.6 #3
Ah, the poor balas (water jug). This is one of the most underestimated and ignored of the dances along the Nile.

3-17-08 From Cabaret to DJ Bellydance in New York: An Overview, 1988 - 2007 by Nina Costanza (Amar)
But the primary forums for dancers, the major New York nightclubs, have closed their doors. Cabaret is gone; it is the era of the DJ. And the new dancer has to have another job.

9-17-07 Changes: Egyptian Dance - Has it crossed the line? by Amina Goodyear
Both festivals, held in Giza were isolated and insulated from the people and the Cairo that I know and love.


 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines