Far from being sheer proto-orientalist stereotypes of political tyranny, barbarous superstition, or sexual deviousness, literary portraits of the Ottoman and Persian empires in early modern English literature are varied, complex, and nuanced. Influenced by both classically inherited sources and contemporary travelers’ updates on diplomatic and commercial ties with eastern empires, literary works showcasing the two empires were inflected by the versatile genre of historical romance, be it in prose, poetic, or dramatic forms. The scenarios of interaction with which these works experiment range from fantasies of competing with otherness and overcoming it to assimilating and incorporating it, at a time when England was still in the process of sizing up the Islamic empires’ wealth and might from a perspective of “imperial envy” (in Gerald MacLean’s phrase) rather than from a posture of already established superiority. Topically presented as foils or alternatives to each other in the East, the Ottomans and Persians were seldom conflated for the readers or spectators, but rather demarcated along confessional and political divides entailing distinct literary and dramatic portraits. Finding their ways into the repertory history of English drama, the highly influential families of “Turk plays” and “Persian plays” also had a progeny well beyond the works officially listed by critics under those labels. Further study of performance history and editing of travel material hold the promise of research developments in these directions, bringing, in particular, English history plays into the conversation, with the Ottoman and Persian models allowing these plays’ larger articulations of the stages of history and forms of nationhood.
Writers have always been conscious of the contribution that clothes can make to their work—as material objects, as outward signs of inner character, and as metaphors, especially for language itself. In the early 20th century, however, a time of rapid technological change, as well as of industrialization, globalization, and urbanization, literary interrogations and descriptions of dress evolved to respond to the new ways in which garments were designed, made, marketed, and sold, and to fashion’s increasing pervasiveness in society. Particularly sensitive to these changes were many of the writers associated with modernism, who shared with the nascent fashion industry a preoccupation with questions of novelty and the presentation of the self. Russia was no exception, and there poets, playwrights, and novelists explored and exploited the meanings of clothes and fashion in order to address the urgent questions concerning sex, gender, and race that were thrown up by life in the modern city. Moreover, as elsewhere, these explorations were not limited to the page; rather, writers’ own wardrobes played a part, especially among those who styled themselves as dandies. In other ways, however, Russia diverged from the European norm in its relationship to clothes and fashion and, therefore, in their intersection with literature. First, the habit of appropriating motifs and styles from non-European cultures, which was further galvanized by the modernist turn away from 19th-century culture, had a very different significance in Russia. The long history of ambivalence about Russia’s place in European culture meant that Russians were capable of finding the exotic in their own backyard, leading, for instance, to a vogue for peasant poets. Second, Russia experienced a particularly intense craze for masquerades in the first two decades of the century, which was both reflected in contemporary literature and, in part, a product of an obsession with the connection between inner essences and outer appearances that also manifested itself in modernist poetry. Third, Russian writers of the time were more inclined than most to see their work as part of a wider transformative mission; this often took the form of an attempt to overcome the perceived division between life and art by infusing the everyday with creativity. Clothes, both on the page and in the streets, were an important front in this battle. Finally, the upheaval caused by the revolutions of 1917 and the emergence of the socialist state had profound effects on the organization of fashion as both industry and discourse. Some writers responded by imagining the post-fashion future; others by involving themselves in reconfiguring what socialist commodities might look like; still others by criticizing a surprisingly resilient consumer culture, at least until the Stalin-inspired reorganization of many aspects of society, including fashion and literature, in the late 1920s and early 1930s.