Poor Yvonne DeCarlo. Born Margaret Middleton in Vancouver, British Columbia, her dark hair and smoldering good looks got her pegged as an "exotic" type in Hollywood and she spent most of her early career playing Persian princesses and scantily clad slave girls till she was saved from obscurity in the Sixties by The Munsters, not to mention being cast in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, where she introduced the classic show biz survivor's anthem, I'm Still Here.
I bring up Yvonne as a way to introduce today's topic: the "exotic" (often bordering on erotic) costume pattern. It interests me because -- excuse me, while I climb onto my soap box for a moment -- imo, when we label something, be it a culture or a person, as exotic, we tend to see it as existing solely for our amusement or consumption. It's why Western countries can speak blithely about imposing sanctions upon, bombing and/or invading countries like Iran or Iraq: like so many other colonized and/or conquered "exotics," we don't have to think about them as people. What they have should be ours for the taking.
Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up watching a lot of TV, and so many classic TV shows and movies were -- and still are -- fascinated with anything associated with the "Middle East" -- it's history and culture. Sheiks, harems and half-naked harem girls, genies, sultans and slave girls were fodder for hundreds of movies, in every possible genre, from Abbott & Costello in Lost in a Harem to Elvis Presley in Harum Scarum.
In the Forties and Fifties, every Hollywood starlet would be expected to pose in some version of the harem girl outfit, if she wasn't actually playing a leggy, chiffon-veiled slave in some high-kitsch silliness with wildly anachronistic costumes, hairstyles, and sets. While the female characters were fantasy objects, Arab and Persian men were usually presented as clowns, villains, or hyper-sexual savages. Glamour girls like Adele Jergens and Maria Montez made their names in these types of films, and more serious actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner got stuck in them too.
|Dominican-born Maria Montez|
Let's not forget TV's own Jeannie, a (straight) bachelor's fantasy if ever there was one.
So after all that, readers, if I told you I just bought this pattern, would you think I was nuts?
I've already tried harem pants, as you may already know, but it's the harem girl outfit I'm interested in now, for Cathy. There were many too choose from, probably due in part to the popularity of Disney's Aladdin.
In the Forties, a lot of these harem-inspired exotic styles found their way into mainstream fashion (or was it the other way around?): think hats with attached chiffon scarfs, veils, turbans, and fancy midriff tops. It's a look I love.
Readers, what do you make of all this? Is there something inherently offensive about dressing up as a harem girl or, for that matter, an Indian chief, geisha, or generic "Oriental"?
Is my discomfort a case of excessive political correctness or do these costumes contribute to the ease with which we demean cultures we don't understand? Or, conversely, are they a celebration of cultural diversity, a la, It's a Small World, and we should just have some silly fun with them?
Exotic costume patterns -- yea or nay?
(Below: Bossa nova meets Rimsky-Korsakov and WHAT'S with the concealed cleavage and potted geraniums?)