|Title: Costumes civils actuels des tous les peuples connus|
|Author: Jacques Grasset de Saint Saveur|
Todd van Hulzen shares his scans and files from historic archives on the subjects of architecture and the arts
These scanned images of from an 18th century French book on world costumes never cease to make you laugh. In spite of being very nicely drawn, they still can’t live down their basic naivety. And this is what’s interesting. Today we are so familiar visually with other cultures that even our most clumsy racial stereotypes still seem positively enlightened when compared to what we knew of other peoples in the 18th century. However, if you look closely at the European examples, you see that within a much smaller radius there was far more diversity than there is today. Compare the costumes of Catalonia with those of Corsica, for instance, or Brittany with Flanders. The frontier of the strange was so much closer to home.
You also see the trouble the artist had in rendering costumes from written descriptions of voyagers. In the case of the Japanese gentleman, you see aspects of the kimono as you would imagine them from a French description “patterned silk robe” without the signs that actually make it recognizable as a kimono. The same is true of the Japanese woman’s hair.
This collection of drawings is a strange mirror of the development of the concept of racism, from a time when we couldn’t help but be ignorant and fanciful about other peoples, in a time that European “superiority” was more a belief in virtues of enlightenment or Christendom than of the de facto power and privilege that Westerners enjoy today.