Corsets and Codpieces

In my last blog post, I made this off-hand comment: “If you’re looking for a pop culture book on the history of fashion, Ottoman Dress and Design in the West is not your book.”  Several of you contacted me to ask what I would recommend for those of you who were interested in such a book.

If this was an attempt to Stump the Historian, you have failed.

After a brief search through my shelves, I offer you Karen Bowman’s Corsets and Codpieces: A History of Outrageous Fashion, from Roman Times to The Modern Era. As its title would suggest, Corsets & Codpieces is at first glance a light romp through the history of fashion in the West. (1) But while the tone is light, the work is solidly grounded in the social context for sartorial change. It also offers asides on topics such as the conditions under which lacemakers worked (2), the advantages of wigs over your own hair in the days of Really Big Hair (3),

and how to sit in a farthingale. My own favorite is an endnote explaining the ubiquitous little bow on modern bras. I’m not going to share the details, but it turns out to be the fashion equivalent of a vestigial tail.

Looked at as a whole, the book illustrates a fascinating point made in Ottoman Dress and Design in the West: that the idea of fashion is based on fairly rapid changes in style and requires an economy in which a substantial portion of the population can afford (or feel compelled) to buy goods they don’t actually need.  Guilty as charged.

(1)How can you resist a chapter titled “Death by Crinoline”?
(2) Bad
(3) Among other things, the eighteenth century version of “product” attracted bugs and rodents. Eeuw!

Ottoman Dress and Design in the West


Those of you who have known me for a long, long time might remember that I once wrote a proposal for a book on how Islam influenced Western culture in fundamental ways.(1) Those of you who’ve known me even longer know that my dissertation was titled Building the Orient of the Imagination: Excess, Confusion and Violence in Orientalist Painting and Literature. (2) In other words, I’ve been interested in cultural and economic interaction between the Islamic world and the West almost as long as I’ve been interested in women warriors.

Which means that I lit up like a pinball machine when a bookish friend of mine named Sara Catterall mentioned that she was finishing a book written by her mother, textile and apparel scholar Charlotte A. Jirousek, titled Ottoman Dress and Design in the West: A Visual History of Cultural Exchange. I may have even had a “tilt” sign flashing over my head.

Last week I carried her (their?) with me on a trip home to the Ozarks, where I gobbled it down between visits with my family and research appointments on a possible book topic. (3) And while Ottoman Dress and Design in the West is far too beautiful for me to scribble in the margins or mark up with a highlighter, it is annotated with discrete check marks, question marks, and exclamation points, as well as an occasional line alongside an entire passage.

My favorite type of academic writing—and make no mistake, this is an academic book—uses a very specific lens to consider broader issues. Jirousek and Catterall are in this tradition. They have crafted a serious piece of scholarship that illuminates trade patterns and cultural exchanges through changes in dress and design. The prose is clear and jargon-free. The illustrations are both gorgeous and useful.(4) (If you want a peek, check out the Instagram feed ottomandressinthewest.) And wonderful insights are scattered through the text almost off-hand. Here are a handful of my favorites:

  • “The body under the clothes was the crucial revelation of medieval European dress.”
  • In 13th century Germany, only social outcastes, such as bastards, serfs and prostitutes, wore stripes. Stripes didn’t become respectable until the 17th century.
  • Buttons, like trousers, came to Europe from Central Asia via the Islamic world.
  • And the real kicker: In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Ottoman women, who had more rights over their property and their person than their Western counterparts, “would become something of an embodiment of Western female yearnings for emancipation. Thus, the adoption of Turkish dress, particularly the loose trousers, took on new meanings. Such attire could be taken as an intentional sign of admiration for the social and economic rights of Ottoman women, not merely for the physical convenience of their dress.”—I told you this was a book about more than just changing fashion.

If you’re looking for a pop culture book on the history of fashion, Ottoman Dress and Design in the West is not your book. But if you are interested in serious history of fashion, cross-cultural exchanges, or the place where the two collide, grab yourself a copy.

(1) It didn’t sell, alas! But it was a masterclass in how to write a book proposal and an object lesson on why not to talk about a project to your friends too early in the process.

(2) Which included early versions of asides in the footnotes

(3) See note (1) above.

(4) I’m in awe at the sheer number of them, knowing the agony I went through getting permissions for ten measly illustrations for Women Warriors.

If You Want to Know More About the 6888th Postal Battalion…

Allow me to introduce you to Lincoln Penny Films, which has produced documentaries on both the Six Triple Eight and the Hello Girls

The Six Triple Eight: No Mail, Low Morale is now screening here and there. If you want to see the schedule, check out the documentary’s Facebook page:


Note: If you want to see the movie trailer for The Six Triple Eight (and believe me, you do), click on the post title to see it in the browser.