The Beach Pyjama Incident
Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow wore them, but British officials felt that beach pyjamas weren’t right for Sharjah in 1933.
Woman in beach pyjamas, 1932. Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-13627 via Wikimedia Commons
Air travel had come to Sharjah the previous year, when it began serving as a stopover on the Imperial Airways route to India. Facilities included a rest house with bath and showers. However, in 1933 a report reached the British Political Agent in Bahrain that passengers had been making visits to the town, including one female passenger ‘clad in beach pyjamas’, the fashionably fast beach leisurewear of the 1930s.
A senior India Office official, J G Laithwaite, was soon referring in an official minute to the ‘beach pyjama incident’.
Minute by Laithwaite, India Office, 8 May 1933, referring to ‘the beach pyjama incident’ at Sharjah IOR/L/PS/12/3807, f 24.
British concern about the free movement of air passengers at Sharjah took two forms. On the one hand, they wished to limit contact between visitors and the Sheikh of Sharjah, particularly unauthorised representatives of oil companies hunting for lucrative petroleum contracts.
On the other hand, there was concern that passengers might be ‘insulted or molested’ by the local inhabitants, who had ‘not up to now been accustomed to having strangers, especially ladies, wandering about their bazaars’. If this happened, the British authorities would be forced to insist that the Sheikh identified and punished the offenders, with a consequent straining of relations between the British and the Sheikh.
The British Political Resident, Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, proceeded to write to the Sheikh of Sharjah, warning him, more tactfully, about the possible threat to passengers from ‘some bad character or Bedouin from the desert’, and asking him to enforce a treaty clause stating that no Imperial Airways employee or passenger should be allowed to enter the town of Sharjah without the Sheikh’s permission.
Letter from Lieutenant-Colonel Trenchard Fowle, Political Resident in Persian Gulf, to the Sheikh of Sharjah, March 1933, warning him of the consequences, if some ‘unfortunate incident’ were to occur involving Imperial Airways passengers at Sharjah: IOR/L/PS/12/3807, f 29.
The historian Penelope Tuson thinks that the concern of British administrators for the safety of female passengers was only apparent, and that that their real motive was to preserve sexual propriety and the status quo, in the face of increasing numbers of female visitors to the Gulf – doctors, nurses, oil industry wives, and travellers like Freya Stark. All of these women were outside the British political and diplomatic class, and hence more difficult to control.
However, British officials may have reflected that Sharjah was in a part of the Gulf that had up to that point seen few manifestations of Western culture. (The airfield ‘rest house’ was actually a fort, Al Mahatta, complete with armed guards.) Moreover, the chief concern of British administrators was normally the need to preserve friendly relations with local rulers, who were themselves part of the status quo.
Thus, Fowle had also been at pains to reprimand Imperial Airways over an incident at Gwadar, an exclave of the sultanate of Muscat, in which an employee of the company had accidentally wounded a local person while out shooting. Fortunately, the incident in question was quickly settled.
In the event, Imperial Airways promptly enforced restrictions on the movements of passengers at Sharjah.
The identity of the female passenger at the centre of the controversy is not recorded. However, the incident illustrates some of the cultural interactions that characterised the changing face of the Gulf in the 1930s.
The correspondence file on which this piece is based will be made available in the Qatar Digital Library in 2017.
Content Specialist, Archives
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
British Library, Coll 30/88 'Question of residence of European women on the Trucial Coast.' IOR/L/PS/12/3807.
Penelope Tuson, Playing the Game. The Story of Western Women in Arabia (London and New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2003)
Film of the airport at Sharjah in 1937