Oroonoko and Fashion

One of the characteristics of literature during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to denote observations, and details. Within Oroonoko, we see the author goes into fine details, so as to describe the customs and clothing of the people. More specifically, the fashion of the people becomes important. According to “Wonder and Science: Imagining Worlds in Early Modern Europe” by Mary Baine Campbell, the author states that this novel “played a part in the emerging project that came to be known as anthropology” (260). Campbell notes, “In an era when clothes and habit was a major focus of ethnological literature including body ornamentation…the term ‘fiction’ meant ‘the act of fashions,’ or that which is fashioned” (260). She notes that fashion meant “manners and customs,” or what has become “ethnology.” According to Campbell, The” clothing of the travelers became a site for the narratives” (261). She notes that clothing “performs important functions of organizing attention, transmitting information, or symbolizing social identities” (262). She notes that “clothing separates Oroonoko from others as an ‘aristocrat’ because of his rich Habit” (262). Campbell states “these ethnographies could be associated with novels and cultural taxonomies,” and that “Ethnography combined the lines of “modern science and fiction” (271).
The role of fashion is seen within Oroonoko when Aphra Behn describes the clothing of the many nations. For example, Behn notes that the natives wore feathers “which they order in all shapes, make themselves little short Habits of ‘em, and glorious wreaths for their Heads, Necks, Arms, and Legs” (39). The natives also wore “beads which they weave into Aprons about a quarter of an Ell long, and of the same breadth.” (39). When describing the natives Behn states that the travelers trade with the natives the feathers. For example, she states
“Then we trade for Feathers, which they order into all Shapes, make themselves little short Habits of ‘em and glorious Wreaths for their Heads, Necks, Arms and Legs, whose Tinctures are unconceivable. I had a Set of these presented to me, and I gave ‘em to the King’s Theatre, and it was the Dress of the… Queen, infinitely admir’d by Persons of Quality; and were unimitable. Beside these, a thousand little Knacks, and Rarities in Nature, and some of Art; as their Baskets… Aprons…We dealt with ‘em with Beads of all Colours…The Beads they weave into Aprons about a quarter of an Ell long, and of the same breadth; working them very prettily in Flowers of Several Colours of Beads; which Apron they wear…the Men wearing a long Stripe of Linen, which they deal with us for. They thread these Beads also on long cotton-threads, and make Girdles to tie their Aprons to, which come twenty times, or more about the Waste; and then cross, like Shoulder-belt, both ways, and round their Necks, Arms and Legs” (39).
This is used to signal the types of clothing and customs of the natives.
The novel takes place in “Surinam, in the West Indies” (39). Oroonoko the main character was a prince, and when he went into captivity he took of his “robe” (68), in exchange for lower garments. Behn describes the travelers as wearing “Petticoats, shoes, stockings” (82).
It is my opinion that fashion is extremely important within the novel. I believe it is a technique used by Behn to signal each nation’s uniqueness, and to add details to the story.