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Cultural Cross-Dressing: Posing and Performance in Orientalist Portraits

  • TARA MAYER (a1)

This article provides new perspectives in interpreting the sartorial codes present in Orientalist portraits of European subjects. Art historians have traditionally implicated these works in the European imperialist project of appropriating, manipulating, and gaining mastery over the Orient. More recently, as part of a wider effort to challenge conventional portrayals of colonial encounters in purely confrontational, monolithic terms, portraits of Europeans in exotic dress have been seen as visual proof that certain Europeans may have ‘crossed-over’ or ‘gone-native’. This article advances a third perspective. Analysing several portraits of Europeans with Indian connections during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it demonstrates the importance of analysing portraiture as an act of public performance. It shows that, in many cases, the performance of both artist and sitter alike were not intended for the colonial population, but for the spectators of colonialism situated ‘back home’ in Europe. Applying this new analytical approach to such an important and extensive genre of sources has far reaching implications both within the field of art history as well as within the broader domains of colonial history and contemporary East–West cultural studies. The interpretation of Western portrayals of the Orient – both visual and literary, both historical and contemporary – as active participants in an imperialist ideology must not eclipse the other, potentially less-charged, varied, and complex motivations of their participants.

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1 Pointon, Marsha, Hanging of the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 1994), pp. 46.

2 Phelan, Peggy, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (New York, 1993), p. 36.

3 Weeks, Emily, “Cultures Crossed: John Frederick Lewis and the Art of Orientalist Painting”, in The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, (ed) Tromans, Nicholas (London, 2008), pp. 2425.

4 Quoted in Christine Riding “Travellers and Sitters: The Orientalist Portrait”, in The Lure of the East, (ed) Nicholas Tromans, p. 48.

5 Ibid.

6 Two large, recent exhibitions in Europe of Orientalist painting focused almost exclusively on works relating to the Muslim Mediterranean, Middle East, and Maghreb (Muslim north-west Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia): ‘The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting’ (Tate Britain, London, 4 June – 31 August 2008) and ‘Orientalism in Europe’ (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, 15 October – 9 January 2011).

7 Fisher, Michael H., Counterflows to Colonialism: Indian Travellers and Settlers in Britain, 1600–1857 (New Delhi, 2004), p. 43.

8 Riding, “Travellers and Sitters”, p. 48.

9 Rana Kabbani, “Regarding Orientalist Painting Today”, in The Lure of the East, (ed) Nicholas Tromans, p. 43.

10 See Gordenker, Emilie E.S., Van Dyck and the Representation of Dress in Seventeenth-Century Portraiture (London, 2003).

11 Van Dyck's reputation for capturing exotic dress was established with his 1622 portrait of Sir Robert Shirley, which has been credited with pioneering the European fashion for posing in oriental costume. Shirley was shown in elaborate khil'at robes (honorific garments), commemorating his return from Persia. Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was another seventeenth-century European whose portraits show him in elaborate eastern dress. See Tavernier en Oriental in Les Six Voyages de Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1679) and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier by Nicolas de Largillierre (ca. 1700).

12 For descriptions and images of Mughal dress in the era of Shah Jahan, see Kumar, Ritu, Costumes and Textiles of Royal India (London, 1999), pp. 3851. For descriptions of Mughal dress in the era of Shah Jahan (1628–1658), see Ansari, Muhammad Azhar, Social Life of the Mughal Emperors, 1526–1707 (Allahabad, 1974), p. 8. Likewise, Mughal male clothing styles during the reign of Jahangir and Shah Jahan are described in Masilamani, M., “Clothing in Mughal India”, in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1501–1800, (ed) Condra, Jill (Westport, 2008), pp. 212214.

13 The Earl's outer tunic closely resembles (however pre-dates) a sherwani coat: a long doublet-like garment that emerged in the eighteenth century and fused the Mughal kameez with the British frock coat.

14 Fisher, Counterflows to Colonialism, p. 43.

15 Stewart, Susan, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham NC, 1993), pp. 147148.

16 Castle, Terry, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, 1986), p. 60.

17 Ibid., p. 5.

18 Ibid., p. 62.

19 Richard Martin, “Orienting the Wardrobe: Eastern Influences on Western Dress”, Magazine Antiques, (January 1995), p. 1.

20 Beth Tobin Fowkes, Picturing Imperial Power: Colonial Subjects in Eighteenth-Century British Painting (Durham NC, 1999), p. 82.

21 Ibid., p. 85.

22 Ibid.

23 Sandeman, David Hugh (ed.), Selections from Calcutta Gazettes of the Years 1806–1815 Inclusive (Calcutta, 1868) vol. iv, pp. 185187. Description of a masquerade ball held in December 1807.

24 Churchill, Ward, “Fantasies of the Master Race: Categories of Stereotyping of American Indians in Film”, in Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians, (ed.) Jaimes, M. Annette (Maine, 1992), p. 236.

25 Wood, Gillen D'Arcy, The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760–1860 (New York, 2001), p. 49.

26 MSS Euro B187, Letter from Sophia Plowden to her sister Lucy in London, 4 April 1783, OIOC, British Library.

27 For European portrayals of female Indian dress during the late eighteenth to nineteenth century, see Nevile, Pran, Beyond the Veil: Indian Women in the Raj (Nevile Books, 2000).

28 The term ‘nabob’ is an Anglicisation of the term nawab, a title given to a noble regional governor in the Mughal empire. In Britain, the term became popular in the latter decades of the eighteenth century and referred to Britons who had made large fortunes in the East.

29 de Almeida, Hermione and Gilpin, George H., Indian Renaissance: British Romantic Art and the Prospect of India (London, 2005), p. 104.

30 For a comprehensive analysis of the Indianised sartorial customs of returned ‘nabobs’ in late eighteenth-century Britain, see my “Clothing and the Imperial Image: European Dress, Identity, and Authority in Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century North India” (PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2010), Chap. 3.

31 Khil'at (Arabic: ‘Robe of honour’) refers to both a garment and a ceremonial mark of honour. Khil'ats played a crucial role in traditional Mughal ceremonies of incorporation, during which authority or favour was transferred from the giver to the receiver of the khil'at robe. See Gordon, Steward, Robes of Honour: Khil'at in Pre-Colonial and Colonial India (Oxford, 2003) and Cohn, Bernard, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, 1996), p. 114.

32 Remarkably, Foote's dress from this portrait has survived in tact (except for his shoulder shawl and turban); it was on display at the V&A's 2004 exhibition, ‘Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500–1800’.

33 Captain Colin Mackenzie (1806–1881) is not to be confused with the well known Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754–1821), who served as Surveyor General of India, leading the Mysore survey between 1800 and 1810.

34 Rasheed El-Enany, discussion of ‘Captain Colin Mackenzie’ by James Sant, Tate Britain, 13 August 2008 (Recorded on

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Sale, Lady Florentian, A Journal of the Disasters in Affghanistan, 1841–42 (London, 1844), p. 207.

38 Mackenzie, Helen Douglas, Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier's Life: Colin Mackenzie, 1825–1881 (Edinburgh, 1884), p. 253.

39 The latter notion has been advanced most recently by William Dalrymple, who has cited portraits of eighteenth-century Europeans in Indianised forms of dress as illustrative evidence of an “early promiscuous mingling of races and ideas, modes of dress and ways of living”. See Dalrymple, William, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India (New Delhi, 2002), p. xli.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
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