Turkish costume

Turkish costume

In Brief

In Nausicaa Bloom twice recalls a dream of the previous night in which Molly was wearing red slippers and Turkish pants. In Oxen of the Sun the Pepys-like narrator omnisciently reports this dream and implies that it has predictive significance: "he having dreamed tonight a strange fancy of his dame Mrs Moll with red slippers on in a pair of Turkey trunks which is thought by those in ken to be for a change." What kind of change? Circe supplies a clue when Florry says that "Dreams go by contraries." According to a common superstition, dreaming about something predicts that its opposite will happen. By this logic, Bloom will start wearing the pants again in his house, regaining a measure of home rule. 

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In Nausicaa Bloom dimly recalls his dream: "Come in. All is prepared. I dreamt. What?" Later in the chapter, in a realistic representation of the experience of remembering dreams, he recovers some of the details: "Dreamt last night? Wait. Something confused. She had red slippers on. Turkish. Wore the breeches. Suppose she does. Would I like her in pajamas? Damned hard to answer." The sentence "Wore the breeches" clearly indicates that Bloom's unconscious mind has generated this costume as an expression of his awareness that Molly wears the pants in the marriage, and the question "Would I like her in pajamas?" suggests sexual uncertainty about his submissive role––is it exciting or depressing? So when the dream is mentioned again in Oxen, readers are primed to view the prediction of a "change" as having something to do with the gender roles in the Bloom household.

Penelope reveals that Molly too thinks of wearing red Turkish slippers: "Id have to get a nice pair of red slippers like those Turks with the fez used to sell or yellow and a nice semitransparent morning gown that I badly want." Bloom's dream was most likely prompted by her telling him of this desire at some time, but it seems remotely possible that he has an uncanny intuition of it, because the novel's third protagonist possesses uncanny awareness of Bloom's dream: Stephen too has vividly dreamed of a Mideastern figure who invited him to "Come in." By a logic more straightforward than "contraries" the novel suggests that his dream predicts Bloom's invitation to come home and meet Molly.

In Circe, the chapter of waking dreams, Stephen finds his vision becoming reality. He meets Bloom in the "Street of harlots" as the dream predicted, recognizes other traces of it, and looks for the "red carpet spread" it promised. The chapter also turns Bloom into "Haroun al Raschid," the Arab caliph who led Stephen into his house and promised to introduce him to a woman. A similar reenactment occurs with Bloom's dream. Early in Circe he hears a sharp "Poldy!," dodges an expected blow, and says, "At your service."

(He looks up. Beside her mirage of datepalms a handsome woman in Turkish costume stands before him. Opulent curves fill out her scarlet trousers and jacket, slashed with gold. A wide yellow cummerbund girdles her. A white yashmak, violet in the night, covers her face, leaving free only her large dark eyes and raven hair.)


      Welly? Mrs Marion from this out, my dear man, when you speak to me. (Satirically.) Has poor little hubby cold feet waiting so long?
In this restaging of Bloom's dream, Molly's independence from her husband (Boylan boldly addressed her as "Mrs Marion" on the envelope confirming the afternoon's adulterous meeting), and her domineering way of ordering him about ("poor little hubby"), are thrown into high relief. Her quasi-masculine costume suggests, as did the male-attired women in issues of Photo Bits, that male domination and female submission are not inscribed in the order of things.

So far, nothing is going by contraries: the dream's elaboration seems to imply that Molly feels nothing but domineering contempt for her spouse. Over the course of the next hundred pages or more, other manly women scorn and demean Bloom, his wife commits adultery while he watches through a keyhole (dressed as a servant), and a whoremistress fantastically changes sex to enslave and brutalize him. But when Bloom frees himself of the spell of Bello and the Nymph, it seems that the tide of emasculation may finally be turning. This impression is confimed at the beginning of Penelope: "Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel." This small change in the breakfast arrangements at 7 Eccles Street may, one imagines, betoken changes in the marital dynamics as well.

In putting pants on Molly Joyce no doubt was thinking partly of his spouse: one night in Galway, Nora and a female friend donned male attire and went for a stroll, smoking. But by making the pants Turkish he invoked a broader cultural phenomenon. In an NEH-published article from which all the images in this note are taken, "Women's Trousers and Such: The Ottoman influence on early western feminism" (www.neh.gov, Winter 2020), Sara Catterall shows how for two centuries women's trousers had been migrating from Turkey to the West. Catterall writes, "Women’s trousers have long been a symbol of freedom in the Western world. But the idea commonly associated with women’s trousers––that they were inspired by men’s trousers––is not historically accurate. When women’s rights advocates in Europe and the United States first promoted trousers for women, many of them were pointedly not imitating men. They were imitating other women, Muslim women. This may sound odd to anyone who believes that the Muslim world, historically, has been uniformly opposed to women’s rights. The true story is more complex."

Trade with the Turks, who had been wearing pants for millennia, introduced European men to long trousers in the 18th century, and certain women aspired to join them. In 1716 the admirable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was married to the British ambassador, became the first woman to visit the Ottoman Empire and the first European to write "an eyewitness account of the daily life, dress, and manners" of Turkish women. Sometimes she went out in Turkish dress, abandoning the heavy and stiff English court dress for attire that was both romantic and practical: "the luxurious and modest but relatively unstructured forms of traditional Turkish dress felt astonishingly free and comfortable." In letters to her sister Lady Mary described these fashions in great detail, including the yashmak that Joyce puts on Molly: "no Woman, of what rank so ever, is permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her Eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head and hangs halfe way down her back." The result of veiling, she felt, was not suppression but freedom, consistent with the property rights that Turkish women enjoyed: "This perpetual Masquerade gives them entire Liberty of following their Inclinations without danger of Discovery."

After Montagu's death in 1762 and the formal publication of her letters, there was a "craze for Turkish-inspired fashions." Much later, in 1851, New York newspaperwoman and suffragist Amelia Bloomer began to popularize a Turkish-style costume that several other American women had been trying out. It soon became known as "the Bloomer dress." The fashion died out, but at the end of the century "bloomers" staged a comeback as clothes for exercising or visiting the beach. In the years just before the Great War the Ballets Russes sparked a new wave of Orientalism with costumes drawing on Asian and Mideastern models. Designer Paul Poiret, inspired by these sumptuous costumes, began to explore new styles of women's dress, and many others followed his lead. 

Though frequently misunderstood and/or derided, the intention behind these successive waves of imitation was never to confine women to an imagined harem, but on the contrary to liberate them from European strictures of dress and custom. Joyce seems well aware of this. His "handsome woman in Turkish costume" is not a plaything of pashas but an independent and powerful sexual actor. An interesting feminist logic inheres in his decision to point Bloom toward sexual independence by putting Molly in trousers. Can either sex be free, the novel seems to ask, if the other is enslaved? Molly's freedom to commit adultery on June 16––putting on the pants, as it were––challenges Bloom to act with a similar sense of self-possession.

John Hunt 2024