A Chain Reaction: Turquerie and Oriental Textiles Consume Europe


A late 17th/early 18th century Indian calico textile made for the British trading market.   (http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/i/indian-textiles-introduction/)


Revolutionary textiles and new styles of dress in Europe dominated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The genius of Indian calico cottons and their brilliant dyes became a sensation in Europe, and European trading companies rushed to monopolize on these Indian weaving, dying, and printing skills. At the same time, cultural exposure to the Ottoman Empire led to the popularity of the turquerie style of clothing. The embrace of the loose, corset-less, comfortable turquerie style shows European’s fascination with foreign, unknown cultures, yet they collectively westernized both this style with European accessories and tailoring. This westernization worked its way outward, and eventually affected Europe’s colonies all over the world, especially Britain’s colonies in America. Despite the desire to emulate Indian textiles and turquerie fashions, the ultimate westernization of both of these trends exposes the American colonies’ strong connection to Great Britain and the importance of establishing a political space for women separate from their husbands and from England.


A 1747 portrait of the controversial Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV, portrayed in turquerie style of clothing. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turquerie)



The importation of Indian textiles during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a formative movement that was adopted by Europe wholeheartedly. The cotton, fine dyes, and floral prints ultimately came to reflect the style and comfort of European fashion. Lemire and Riello sum up this popularity well in the article East and West: Textile and Fashion in Early Modern Europe, stating that, “The brilliance and fastness of color and the striking designs of imported Indian cottons attracted generations of European consumers”[1]. Europeans fell in love with the comfort of cotton, the bright cheeriness of the bright colored dyes, and the intricate patterns of the printmaking. This obsession with Eastern goods, which was often the “fabrics trans-shipped from Asia through Levantine ports,” [2] led to the establishment of European trading companies like the Dutch East India Co. and English East India Co. to trade with the East. And while these companies served as the primary source of acquiring Indian materials at first, soon domestic methods of producing cotton and dyes were developed and changed due to westernization. While it took time, eventually cotton and fabrics were “partially re-interpreted to suit European tastes and expectations, but rarely relied on the original technologies used to produce them in the East”[3]. Europeans sought to mimic and imitate the fine Indian textiles, which is evident by the floral designs in The Needle’s Excellency [4], as examples of symmetric patterns for clothing and fabric in Europe. By the late 1770s, the English had replaced wooden blocks used by India with copper plates to prefect the printmaking process, and rotary printing machines made the prices of fabrics go down while being more time efficient. These were efforts to keep textile production in Europe, for the health of the domestic economies. This adaptation of India’s textiles, dyes, and fabrics is an example of emulation and ultimate westernization regarding fashion and adornment in Europe and its colonies.

Here is a broader video discussing this attraction to Eastern goods, culture, and orientalism in general: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewWSpGkZetI

Abigail Smith Babcock, a wealthy Connecticut colonist painting by John Singleton Copely in 1774. (https://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg60b/gg60b-65885.html)

Europe’s obsession with the turquerie style of dressing is another direct example of western culture’s fascination with the East in general, and the Ottoman Empire in particular, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This love of the mysteriousness of Eastern culture exemplifies their wishes for cultural expansion despite blatant westernization of these trends occurring, not long after the style was adopted. The loose, baggy, comfortable style of dress that was extremely popular during this time period was due to styles seen in costume books about the Ottoman Empire, travel narratives of people who visited the Levant, and popular Ottoman-inspired plays. These forms of engagement fascinated European women, who adopted the styles and then promptly westernized them, shifting this style into statements of power and wealth. This European interest in Ottoman style infiltrated the British colonies in America as well. Evident in the popular portraits by John Singleton Copley, American women wore, “loose, flowing gowns belted with ornate bands of embroidered cloth. Some have donned ermine-rimmed robes. Others have chosen tasseled turbans. Strings of pearls decorate their hair. Most have abandoned their corsets”[5]. The pearls and luxurious fabrics used to adorn turquerie are evidence of this westernization, maximizing symbols of wealth for England and its colonies. The particular painting of Abigail Smith Babcock [6], among others, emphasizes that while the style remains loose and exotic, it is westernized, as she wears a headscarf instead of turban, fur-trimmed clock, and has wider sleeves. This popular style, changed to reflect the fashions of Europe, exposes the global desires of Europeans and their drive for cultural expansion, yet ultimate influence of their own adornment. The embrace of turquerie style is a metaphor for the global drive Europeans had for increasing trade and colonies, yet shows their ultimate culture of insularity; that they were superior and ultimately sought for westernization of everything.

Anne Fairchild, 1758 by John Singleton Copley (http://bjws.blogspot.com/2013/11/john-singleton-copley-1738-1815-paints_4289.html)

Due to the fact that turquerie was popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it came to represent the colonies’ inevitable binding to Great Britain.
American women in the colonies loved the European’s adaptation of the loose style, as well as the and way it was accessorized with luxury goods like pearls and feathers. As a result, it was quickly adopted and worn by wealthy colonists. The 1774 the poem by Mercy Otis Warren, “compared Americans’ love of things British to the persecuted Israelites’ desire for Egyptian stuffs”[7]. This demonstrates how although colonists were feuding with the Mother country for the majority of this time period, women loved the style and still wanted to purchase turquerie clothing. Ultimately, colonists looked to the seemingly more sophisticated Great Britain for fashion inspiration, because of its established society and social hierarchy. Additionally, American women wanted to have their portraits painted like    European women did in turquerie. Copley’s loved this style and he “introduced turquerie to colonial portraiture”[8]. Evident in various portraits, both loyalist and patriot women used this style when being painted. Turquerie’s popularity prevented American fashion from developing to the fullest by perpetually binding them to British for fashion inspiration and style. Wealthy colonists were fascinated with Britain’s Eastern look and quickly adopted it, refusing to detach from Great Britain even in terms of fashion.

A seventeenth century Indian cotton print, similar to what started being reproduced by the British and then later on, the American colonists due to taxes on foreign goods.

A seventeenth century Indian cotton print, similar to what started being reproduced by the British and then later on, the American colonists due to taxes on foreign goods. (http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O18882/cover-unknown/)

Textiles in  colonial America initiated the idea of women establishing their own political view, perhaps for the first time. In the colonies, once taxation on European cotton set was established, women felt obligated to home-spin their clothes and “women suddenly had a political role to play”[9]. Women in America had to boycott the very materials and styles that they found appealing and fashionable, and this made a huge political statement against the crown. The import of cloth and clothing, and the prices that were controlled by Britain, were two roots in the fight between the two lands. Like the style of turquerie, cotton fabrics, and dye that England and America loved so much came to represent dependence on Great Britain. By having to make their own clothing, women consciously had, “an individual political identity separate from that of their husbands, fathers, or brothers,”[10] and had to stand up against the very fashions that they found so appealing.

In conclusion, the clothing and styles that was adopted in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had a significant impact in both Europe and its American colonies. The importance of cotton and of the turquerie style, “was a patchwork of nationalism, dependence gender position, and various forms of power and control”[11] in both Europe and America. It is the inevitable westernization of both the textiles and the fashion that expose not only the power of women but also the dominance of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

-Annabel Susanin


[1] Lemire, B and Riello, G. “East & West: textiles and Fashion in Early Modern Europe” in Journal of Social History Vol. 41 No. 4. (Summer, 2008). 888.

[2] Lemire and Riello, 889.

[3] Lemire, and Riello, 893.

[4] Exerpts from: The Needle’s Excellency (London, 1640).

[5] Breskin, I. “On The Periphery of a Greater World: John Singleton Copley’s Turquerie Portraits” in Winterthur Portfolio vol. 36 No. 2/3 (summer-autumn, 2001). 99.

[6] Breskin, 112.

[7] Breskin, 106.

[8] Breskin, 104.

[9] Breskin, 108.

[10] Breskin, 108.

[11] Breskin, 112.

 Works Cited

yBreskin, I. “On The Peripher of a Greater World: John Singleton Copley’s Turquerie Portraits” in Winterthur Portfolio vol. 36 No. 2/3 (summer-autumn, 2001).

Exerpts from: The Needle’s Excellency (London, 1640).

Lemire, B and Riello, G. “East & West: textiles and Fashion in Early Modern Europe” in Journal of Social History Vol. 41 No. 4. (Summer, 2008)