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Kajar painting: a window into the life and fashion of Muslim harems of past centuries

About how life and the manner of dressing Muslim women in harem look like, European people for a long time made representations according to the fantasies of painters. These fantasies usually included a lying naked woman in European style (less often – standing) and a couple of slaves in the eastern surroundings. Meanwhile, during the reign of the Qajar dynasty, portraiture blossomed in Muslim Iran, thanks to which you can see how orientalist artists guessed or did not guess with their canvases. Just say: naked women are there.

Just as the East influenced Europe, giving rise to fashion for huge Indian shawls and turbans, which became the women’s headdress in the West, so the West influenced the fashion of the East. It was under the impression of Western paintings that a new portraiture and genre painting developed in Iran, sometimes very bizarrely combining the traditions of a flat, stylized oriental portrait and Western realism. Since the painters were very dependent on customers, the images, first of all, indulged the tastes of customers and did not allow excessive experimentation. So the style of the artists under the Qajar dynasty is pretty uniform.

First of all, it is striking that the ideas about the beauties of Europeans and Muslims varied greatly, and a man from the East, looking at a picture of a European, would find what to improve in the heroine of the canvas. For example, since the poor have such small and inexpressive eyebrows, let them down by connecting them on the bridge of the nose. Eyes were also customarily let down by drawing arrows. If we see the naked body of a beautiful woman, then the artist of the East is more likely to emphasize voluptuous folds on his stomach than a chest or bend of a hip. In addition, the chin of the beautiful women in the Khajar portraits goes much softer into the neck.

In many portraits of the era of the Kajar dynasty, one can see how women dressed in harem and what they did when nobody could see them except her husband (as well as other harem dwellers, eunuch servants and the artist). Despite the heat, it was not considered decent to walk around the harem naked. The harem beauties wore silk, cooling the body of clothes, not too constraining the figure: a skirt or harem pants, a short blouse and a blouse. But on the other hand, the blouse was so thin silk that the body was clearly visible through it.

This beauty, playing with a doe, is dressed in harem fashion. For better ventilation, the sleeves on her blouse are slotted, and the artist can admire the line of her hands.

Among the famous photographs of the wives of the Iranian shah, there are several women in the same transparent blouses, which make it possible to reliably make sure that, contrary to popular myth in the Russian network, the constant heroine of the photographs is really a woman, and, moreover, nourishing a child or several. As for the antennae, they were considered piquant in many countries of the East, emphasizing the freshness of the mouth and the whiteness of the skin hidden from the sun. The tenderness of the cheeks was also emphasized by trimmed curls of hair near the ears, and the whiteness of the wrists was made dazzling by painting the palms and fingers with red henna. If a beautiful woman naturally had a mole on her face – she was lucky, such a decoration could delight any man. If there was no mole, they painted it.

From the Khajar paintings it is clear that fashion influenced not only painting. Traditionally, women in Iran preferred to wear loose harem pants rather than a skirt, and wore flat shoes. In the picture below, the beauty is still in bloomers, except that they are much looser, resembling a skirt, in contrast to the traditional Iranian style, but a flirty heel has already appeared on her shoes, and the shoes themselves look so that they could be worn by a European fashionista of the end eighteenth century.

Girl with a hookah.

Fluffy skirts, sometimes fantastically decorated, in combination with fitted caftans imitated European dresses. Naturally, despite the western style, the costumes were decorated in local style. The imitation of European fashion was not blind copying – the Iranians creatively comprehended the style that they liked so much. Nevertheless, although a European would find such an outfit “oriental,” the Iranians themselves believed that they wore European outfits: after all, they differed very much from national dress.

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