Film still of The Sheik.
Film still of The Sheik featuring Valentino as the Arab prince in a fictional North African country who kidnaps and subsequently falls in love with Ayres’ white female character.

The 1920s in North America and Europe saw a continued fascination with the Middle and Far East. Popular culture in the 1920s was saturated with imagined images of these “mysterious” and “far away places.” For example, an incredibly popular romantic film starring Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres called The Sheik was released in 1921. The next year, British archaeologists Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered the nearly intact tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt. Likewise, fashion of the Jazz Age did not escape the lure of exoticism: expensive textiles like silk would never be unpopular and Asian inspired motifs were all-the-rage.

Often, exotic motifs in 1920s garments are vague, with only a hint of supposed Middle Eastern flavor or otherwise non-Western ethnicity imagined through pattern, fabric, and shape. Especially popular in the 1920s was the appropriation of East Asian themes: lotus, cranes, clouds, suns, all make their appearance in a Western interpretation of East Asian art, fashion and design. Fashion in the 1920s also borrowed from South American motifs with bright colors and geometric shapes, again, offering only an estimation of an Aztec or Mayan design relying heavily on Western ideas of the region. Eastern European ethnic groups were also represented in a more general folk-fashion wave featuring peasant blouses, red on white embroidery, and supposed ‘ethnic’ designs.

Poiret creation circa 1914.
Poiret creation circa 1914.

The Art Deco aesthetic is closely tied to exoticism, especially in fashion, due to the focus on simplicity and clean lines. Especially popular to nearly all Western designers in the 1920s was the Japanese kimono and motifs associated with it. One of the most prolific and influential European fashion designers of the early twentieth century, Paul Poiret, developed a ‘sultan’ style – probably influenced by the Ballet Russes’ costumes – stylizing Middle Eastern fashion. To advertise his new exotic fashions, Poiret organized lavish ‘Oriental’ themed garden parties where guests would parade his newest pieces. Russian influence on Western European garments was especially strong in the early 1920s as thousands of Russians fled to Paris escaping the Bolshevik Revolution. They brought their skills in embroidery and sewing, and traditional Russian patterns. In fact, many immigrant women found work in French couture houses. Designs influenced by Russian peasant costume was highly popular until it was superseded by more streamlined, cubist fashions later in the decade.

Below, examples of exoticism in 1920s fashion in our collection:

View fashion illustrations from 1920-1923 issues of Gazette du Bonton, a French fashion magazine to see how exoticism permeated the design of 1920s fashion from the earliest stages.

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