Volume 1, Issue 1, Article 8 - 2018

Figurative Mobility:
Veiling, Orientalism, and Unknowing Women in US Vogue, 1917–25





In the years of the veil’s declining popularity as a fashion accessory, the New York edition of Vogue devoted sustained attention to the garment. A series of textual meditations on its significance amounted to a minor philosophical discourse on concealment, revelation, and femininity itself. This preliminary investigation of these treatments of veiling considers its positioning vis-à-vis both the white women who were the normative subjects and imagined readers of the magazine, and orientalized women who were only spectrally present in the pages of Vogue. This paper compares the ways that veiled unknowability was figured for white women and orientalized women in the pages of the magazine, and considers the veil-as-fashion-accessory (distinct from but obliquely related to the imagined “veil-as-cultural-signifier”) as a material technology of opacity that was seen to enable a strategic positioning of white femininity in relation to power. Veiling presents a significant instance of a power-saturated relational encounter, highlighting asymmetrical points of contact between two feminine imaginaries, which hinged on questions of opacity as a conceptual analogue to feminine mystery. This reading shows that invocations of the veil frequently defaulted to translucency while remaining steeped in the language of opacity, and thus obliquely established translucency as a privileged category that allowed white bourgeois women some conceptual mobility while tying orientalized women to pure opacity.  



  • veiling
  • modernity
  • magazines
  • orientalism

  • mobility


Movement for some involves blocking movement for others.

– Sara Ahmed (141)


“No matter how easily understandable one may be with one’s hat off, one cannot help becoming a creature of mystery, subtly, strangely disturbing, when one dons a hat covered entirely with a lace veil” (“Makers of Mystery” 41).  So begins a 1917 American Vogue article about veils. It suggests that the veil opens onto an intangible something that lies beyond the scope of legibility and understanding, and that interlocks with feminine unknowability. This passage is perfectly emblematic of the issues attached to representations of the veil in Vogue in these days, the last of the veil’s use in fashionable dress in North America.


The trope of mystery that is consistently invoked in writing about this accessory underscores the possibility and politics of knowing women. This was, in fact, what all written representations of the veil in Vogue traded in — and taken together they constitute an extraordinary body of work on the relationship of femininity and feminine style to the modern imaginary.


Specifically, as some of the feminist literature on the veil as a fashion accessory has theorized, the veil complicates how the viewer might distinguish between seeming and being: between what the woman appears to be, and what she is, or, put another way, between surface and depth (see fig. 1).1 In effect, the veil reveals the instability of this dualistic categorization, allowing the fashionable white women interpellated by Vogue to effect a series of crossings across ideological boundaries that corresponded to the organization of social life: public and private, distant and proximate, modern and anti-modern, and even the West and the Orient. But it is crucial to recognize that it does so only for white women, affording them some conceptual mobility while reattaching the binary between surface and depth to orientalized women whose wearing of the veil is taken as a “cultural” sign. For white women, as I shall show, the attachment to an unstable binary afforded a kind of conceptual mobility, a constant possibility, if not practice, of crossing, derived precisely from the stasis attached to representations of orientalized women wearing veils.



Porter Woodruff, “Bonjour! Chapeau de Camille Roger,” illustration, Gazette du bon ton (E. Levy, Année 1921, No. 4), planche 27. Royal Ontario Museum, Library & Archives, Toronto.


      The veil is the ideal object to open up the question of conceptual mobility because it gains its meaning from its indeterminacy. Veiling was constructed in Vogue as a kind of technology of mobility; it flagrantly played on the opposition between opacity and transparency, enabling white women to cross between these states and thus obliquely to align themselves with the mobility imagined as characteristic of modernity. In this sense, the veil is shown to allow white femininity to inhabit multiple states: to slip from legibility into inscrutability, to effect a crossing that unfixes them, a movement away from perceptions of their stasis, and toward modernity. For “the mobility of women” — even the largely conceptual mobility that I am treating here — is, as Wendy Parkins reminds us, “bound up with considerations of temporality and the nature of the times they occupy” (3). As women moved, they seemed to enter modernity, as has been ably traced by feminist scholars.2


The fact that this movement was limited to fashionably-attired white women, though, should give us some pause in seizing upon mobility as a defining trope of feminist modernist studies; figurative mobility is a privilege.

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Parsing the archive of the veil in Vogue allows us to nuance our understanding of what movement meant for moderns, revealing its racialized character.

      My discussion centres on an analysis of veils’ appearances in the US edition of Vogue between 1917 and 1925, when they were regularly featured. Occasionally the features focused on bridal veils, but just as often they treated veils as quotidian accessories, and there were also several pieces on the philosophical significance of veiling. Some of the pieces were richly illustrated — such as when they were highlighting new veil styles — and some were composed mostly of text. What were largely absent were explicit, extended discussions of veils worn by orientalized women — in Nirmal Puwar’s words, the “veil as the exemplary sign of the barbaric East, most especially the Islamic East” (65). Rather, orientalized women, under the sign of the veil, seem to circulate as ghostly presences through Vogue’s pages. And yet they are not at all absent. Traces of what they are fantastically imagined to be profoundly mark many, if not most, of the features on the veil as accessory. One feature from 1919 captures this: “A veil … adds a touch of that Oriental mystery that is a never-failing charm” (“Veils are Fragile Bits of Silk…” 49). Thus it is not merely mystery that women are putting on, but “Oriental” mystery. Another piece speaks of “a becoming untrimmed Persian turban,” (“Motor Hats Take the Veil” 36), and another features this description: “Sprays of orange-blossoms and some of the mysterious charm of those veiled beauties of the Orient … lurk in its soft folds and its misty flowing lengths” (“Mystery and Loveliness…” 56).

      What interests me in these portrayals is the relationship they reveal between veiling for white women, who are the normative subjects, and imagined readers, of Vogue, and an imagined “Oriental” veiled woman, who is nearly absent from the pages of the magazine but who haunts the portrayals of veiled white women. For it can never be that fashionable white women are donning an undefined feminine “oriental mystery.” As feminist discussions of orientalism have pointed out, orientalized women come to stand in for the fantastical construction of the Orient as a whole, and the feminization of the Orient means that the concept tends to be embodied in a feminized figure.3 When white women take on oriental mystery, then, they are coming into contact with other women. And so the discourse of veiling, ghosted as it is by orientalized women, represents the meeting of two fantasies of femininity. Veiling thus produces a significant instance of relational encounter: it enables points of connective contact between the imaginaries of white femininity and orientalized femininity, which hinged on questions of knowledge and the limitations of knowledge, transparency and opacity. The issue of what could be known and what could not — and its racialized character — connected women in various ways to the possibility of mobility, which was central to the definition of the modern public sphere and has been taken up by feminist scholars as emblematic of women’s relationship with industrial modernity.


The veil’s facilitation of encounters between different women, as it was imagined by such discourses, rewrites the assumption that orientalism depended on the absolute abjection of the other, on the maintenance of a constant distance through abjection, and the policing of difference. 


In fact, clothing in this period offers a host of examples of the incorporation of the other into the normative embodied subject. The veil is only one of many such garments in a period in which orientalist tropes were popular, especially visible in the influential work of Leon Bakst (set designer for the Ballet Russes) and Paul Poiret from about 1910 as well as slightly later, through designers such as Jessie Franklin Turner and Mariano Fortuny. All of them incorporated an eclectic mix of apparently “oriental” elements into their costume and dress design, opening a window on the construction of differences and power-saturated relationships among women in modernity. But, because of the veil’s unique relationship to the category of knowledge and the explicit linking of this garment to the question of who the woman “is,” it also allows us to think through the many instabilities emerging in this ontological category in a moment of vast structural transformations in America, such as the movements of great numbers of white, middle-class women into paid labour and higher education.

      My research has found that Vogue’s virtual obsession with the decline in this practice is unique; it is simply not evident in comparable forums in other countries. Knowing some of the magazine’s history is helpful in understanding what is at stake in US Vogue’s abiding interest in the veil. As Alberto Oliva and Norberto Angeletti note, Vogue was always intended to speak to two related audiences: an elite one and an aspirational one. “Vogue set the rules for social conduct and was avidly read by those who considered themselves a part of New York’s elite as well as by those who strove to join it” (8). Although the magazine began in 1892 as a general society gazette aimed at both men and women, under the guidance of new publisher Condé Nast from 1905 the title took off as a high fashion magazine for women, still marked by its ethos of distinction.4 In the period that I am tracing, from World War I through the mid-1920s, there was a subtle shift in its orientation, which had consequences for its positioning as exclusive. This followed from a change in the status of American fashion, as France’s grip on the industry began to loosen during the First World War. In this period, Vogue increasingly catered to an American elite for whom, Alison Matthews David writes, “a trip to the Paris couture houses was no longer an obligatory rite of passage” (32). The magazine thus reflected a consolidating American womenswear industry that was distinguished by its mass production and its excellence in the design of casual sportswear. The word “casual” is an important indicator of what might be considered threatening about this change — the perceived loss of qualities like elegance, refinement, and distinction, those very qualities seen to provide the magazine’s