In my many years in the Middle Eastern dance world, I of course had seen the John Singer Sargent painting called Fumée d'Ambre Gris (pic at right). I even had a framed print hanging in my dance room. But it was only fairly recently that I developed a fascination for the details of the costume, thinking perhaps of trying to recreate it for cosplay.
The overall dress is pretty apparent: a wrapped garment pinned with fibulas at the shoulder, similar to the Tunisian melia. This type of garment is just a long rectangular piece of fabric, the cream-colored fabric in the painting. We can see it's folded over at the top of the chest, and goes beyond floor-length (seems a bit impractical), so it must be pretty wide. Also, it wraps all the way around and has enough extra to form the "hood" that she's holding over her head, so it must also be pretty long. I'm guessing about 2 yards by 6 yards.
That much is pretty straightforward. A closer look at the picture shows there is also some brighter white fabric being worn, visible around the neck and the sleeve area, which also has some gold colored parts.
It's reasonable to assume there's a tunic/dress/caftan layered under the wrapped part, and that it has wide, long sleeves that are pushed up the woman's arms. To try and get a better idea of what that dress might look like, I checked out some other Orientalist art from my collections:
|This is a painting, copy of part of a painting by Gaston Saintpierre. I suspect the tunic/dress in Sargent's painting looks similar to hers. The width of the sleeves seems similar, although in Sargent's painting it does look like there is more material in the sleeves, so I would guess those were longer. When I first looked at this painting, I considered that the gold strips down the front might correspond to the gold we see in Sargent's painting, but closer examination changed my mind. On this painting the gold looks like part of a vest-like thing she's wearing, and I really don't think it looks like that in the Sargent painting.|
|This is a old postcard. Again, I think the tunic/dress here looks like it might be similar to Sargent's painting (albeit a bit too sheer). What's of interest is the shiny stipe coming down the front/side from the shoulder area. At first, I thought perhaps they might be like the gold stripes in the Sargent painting, but again, after a little more detailed comparison I thought that didn't look likely.|
Another old postcard with a similar-looking top
(and again, a bit too revealing).
What caught my attention here is that
it looks like the sleeves are not just pulled up to
the shoulders, but seem to held in place there
in some way, perhaps by ties around the back, which are perhaps
formed by the contrasting trim on the end of the sleeve.
Looking back at Sargent's painting, I think the gold is indeed trim at the end of the sleeve. But I don't think the sleeves are tied up there.
So far, I'm pretty confident with my interpretation, because I've learned about this style of wrap garment in the context of Tunisian dance and Guedra. Figuring out further details, however, is going to be a bit more difficult, because I haven't actually seen quite the same thing before. First question is the bright white across the face.
Again, looking at some of my old postcards,
a few show clothing similar to the pic at right.
While this isn't exactly the same type of wrap garment
seen in the original Sargent painting
(e.g. this one doesn't appear to need fibulas),
it does have some similarities.
And it does seem pretty clear here that the cloth over
the face here is a separate piece, neither part of
the main dress nor the overwrap.
I think it's reasonable to assume the woman in Sargent's painting might be wearing a similar separate face cover, but she has hers pulled down most of the way so it's not covering her face. And looking closely at the painting, I would say that seems to match what we see there.
So, the missing piece of the puzzle is, what is she wearing on her head, if anything? We can't see in the original painting because it's hidden by way the wrap garment is being held. I think it's safe to assume she is wearing something, because a) we don't see any hair hanging down in the painting, and b) it's normal in the culture for hair to be covered, and the "tent" she's making with the garment is only temporary.
If we look again to Orientalist art we see head coverings in every pic we've looked at so far. Most of them look like they're made with wrapped scarves, somewhat like turbans. And then we notice something interesting in some of the art, like these postcards:
These ones all show a piece of cloth hanging under the chin.
Although it's not covering any of the face in these pictures,
it does look like it could easily be adjusted to do so, which
seems very much like what we see in the original Sargent painting.
So it looks like we have a reasonable answer to not just the headpiece,
but the cloth to cover the face as well.
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