Surprises and 17th Century Knowledge
By Taylor Marvin
On the subject of social perceptions of what constitutes female “modesty”, a friend recently brought my attention to an interesting fresco at Chehel Sotoun, an archeological site in Isfahan, Iran. Chehel Sotou is a royal pavilion constructed by Safavid Dynasty Shah Abbas II in the mid-17th century, and is decorated with numerous frescos. One particularly interesting series depicts, through Persian eyes, contemporary French nobility.
Clearly the artist got a lot right — the rapier and clothing shown on the rightmost panel are all representative of contemporary French fashion. This is particularly interesting because it’s reasonable to suspect that the artists had no first-hand knowledge of France: in the 17th century direct contact between France and Persia remained rare, and any cultural knowledge would have been diffused through numerous intermediaries.
Another fresco is even more interesting.
Again, a depiction of French nobility. But the woman wears a very low-cut top that exposes her entire chest. My first thought is that this is a snide expression of the artists’ perception cultural superiority over the Europeans. For millennia Western Asian cultures had viewed the European West as a backwater. Already conditioned to view Europeans as decadent barbarians, it isn’t surprising the artist would exaggerate the low-cut of contemporary European female fashion. This exaggerated depiction wouldn’t even have to be a conscious choice: if knowledge of Western Europe tended to reach Persia through numerous intermediaries, exaggeration — no doubt influenced by each intermediaries’ preexisting cultural prejudices — would be expected. A 17th century Persian popular understanding of Europeans as immodest decadents is considerably less fantastical than medieval European’s belief that the East was the home of mythological beasts and other wonders. If anything, there’s a delicious, if ultimately harmful, irony to Persian depictions of Europeans as sexually decadent, given that the inversion of this narrative would be a dominant theme in later Orientalist art by Westerners — “Occidentalism” by the Chehel Sotou artists, indeed.
But it turns out my initial understanding of the fresco’s significance was incorrect. In a recent piece at Slate on the history of female toplessness, Daniel Engber points out that 17th century Europeans held considerably different views on exposed breasts than modern culture. “Extreme décolletage was well-received in the English court throughout the 1620s and then returned to haute couture in the 1680s,” Engber writes, highlighting a a contemporary woodcut of the future Queen Mary II of England.
This positive depiction of the princess depicts her with her breast fully exposed. Another, more formal depiction of the future queen by court artist Peter Lely shows her with her nipples covered, but with far more of her chest exposed than deemed formal in the modern American understanding.
So, rather than exaggerating distant reports of European fashion, the artists at Chehel Sotoun instead painted a fairly accurate depiction of the contemporary Western European nobility! Given that Engber identifies a height of extreme décolletage fashion in the 1620s, the Chehel Sotoun’s half-century lag time places it perfectly to reflect diffused knowledge of this fashion. This isn’t to say that 17th century Persians didn’t feel a sense of superiority over their far-off European contemporaries, but it evidently didn’t influence this particular work of art. Fascinating, right?