French writer Pierre Loti was born in 1850. A life-long traveller, both in the navy and under his own steam, he frequently adopted local dress in his ports-of-call. In a sense dressing up, or at least some shift in identity, was the point of Loti’s travels. His name (he was actually born Julien Viaud), his books, his houses, all were an attempt to simultaneously reveal and conceal his true self. As we have seen, Loti often used his writings to work through events in his own life, but even when using the name “Pierre Loti” it was not so much a pseudonym as another character for him to inhabit. He also travelled through time, hosting a medieval banquet in 1888 at which guests were expected to not only dress in the style of the era but also to speak in Old French (one imagines the evening simply flew by).
Loti performed for a time in a circus, which brought with it welcome opportunities to show off his navy-honed body. “My costume comes straight from Milan, chez Carolo Lorenzi, who makes for all the fashionable acrobats…but the tights are a problem. I don’t know how to get into them. Two clowns come to my help. My trunks are tight enough to split, which is the buffoon’s extreme elegance. Bathing trunks of black velvet, so brief I tremble, big lace cuffs, a green wig with pompons, a mask and a handful of flour and I am ready.” He gave photos of himself in this garb to friends who must surely have asked themselves ‘what is her deal?’.
It’s a question that arises for any modern reader when reading Loti’s first-person accounts, particularly of his extensive womanising. British author Lesley Blanch, arguably the last of the unreconstructed Orientalists, penned the standard English-language biography of the adventurer and took Loti the ladies’ man at his word. She was never one to let facts get in the way of a good story, deploying great clunky chunks of conjecture where there were no sources, fancifully misinterpreting where there were. She also formed many readers’ image of last weeks’s fashion plate Jane Digby, one of the four Araby-fixated women profiled in Blanch’s most popular book, The Wilder Shores of Love.
Blanch observes Loti’s role-playing, “in the burnous of an Arab, adventuring in the Kasbah, as a turbanned Turk puffing a narghile on the water front at Khassim Pacha, as a Breton fisherman roistering with the sailors, or a hundred other beings far from his true self.” The renovation work went on from top to toe. “He had turned early to the artifices of paint and dye pot in that desperate quest for physical perfection which haunted him throughout his life,” notes Blanch, a practice which, along with the stacked shoes worn to compensate for his modest height, were much commented by contemporaries. Despite numerous veiled and not-so-veiled suggestions from Loti himself, Blanch dismisses out of hand the suggestion that he might have been bisexual.
It took the rise of queer theory and books like Peter James Turberfield’s Pierre Loti and the Theatricality of Desire to discuss what was hiding in plain sight all along. According to Turberfield, “the unease his flamboyant transvestism caused can be viewed as a reflection of a way in which it functioned as a challenge to bourgeois concepts of identity”. While a humble sailor stationed in Istanbul, Loti often spent shore leave dressed in Turkish costume. Conversely, once elevated to the officer class he often persisted in dressing like a simple sailor, and Turberfield talks of Loti’s “cross-cultural and cross-class transvestism”. Even in rank-appropriate uniform there was an element of the ridiculous about Loti, “like a dressed-up organ grinder,” as Blanch quotes one unsympathetic observer.
Loti’s most evident influence was on follower Raymond Roussel, similarly susceptible to the lure of both far-off places and the dress-up box. But Blanch makes the questionable case that in dressing up Loti actually pioneered dressing down: “By his nomadic journeys, his seeking to live among the simple people wherever he went, and his adoption of local costumes or casual clothes – something then quite unknown except among working men – he foreshadowed the casual lifestyle of today.”
You be the judge: