Step back 300 years to colonial Latin America and textiles are lavish, fashions often akin to couture, and who wore what was determined not only by what they could afford, but also by class and breed.
It’s a setting with which the exhibition “Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America,” which opens Aug. 14 at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, will surround its visitors.
Through clothing, textiles, paintings and sculptures, this journey to Latin America in the 1700s (the last full century of Spanish colonial rule in the region; it ended in the 1820s after more than 300 years) is l opportunity to revisit and revise a narrative shaped by colonial rule and understand the significance of fabrics and clothing in the life and religion of the time. With indigenous groups, enslaved Africans, Spanish colonizers and their mixed-race descendants intermingling in one form or another, it is impossible to tell the story of fashion in the region through the prism of the Spain.
“Fashion provided agency for all social sectors both in terms of race and class, and despite the aim of the Spanish authorities, who tried to restrict certain clothing to specific social sectors, fashion was, as it is today, very fluid,” Dr. Rosario I. Granados, Marilynn Thoma associate curator of art from the Spanish Americas for the Blanton Museum, said. “You can wear things to be perceived the way you want to be perceived and that’s what happened in colonial times. And I think that’s important because maybe that same conversation about how fashion lets you navigate between different time periods is something that [could help us] start having a conversation about race. Just as gender is very fluid, why don’t we accept that race is also very fluid, that the color of your skin says something about you but doesn’t limit you to who you should be? »
The exhibition is divided into five sections: ‘Making of Clothing’, ‘Wearing Social Status’, ‘Dressing the Sacred’, ‘The Sanctity of Cloth’ and ‘Ritual Clothing’. Pieces come from Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Venezuela and the American Southwest.
Not ignoring the conflict of highlighting a period that was at the root of so much enduring societal inequality in all places that experienced colonial rule, Granados writes in the exhibit’s accompanying catalog that those who lived under Spanish rule – and circumvented these rules of dress. — found ways to use fashion “to cheat the system and transform it to its best interests.”
Quoting historian Tamara Walker, who wrote in her own research that enslaved Africans were able to find their own agency crossing the streets of Lima “evidenced in the sartorial elegance of the Spaniards”, it gave a nod Looking at the status of their masters, Granados says the exhibit’s “Wearing Social Status” shows that indigenous and mestizo groups from other parts of Latin America also found ways to use fashion to navigate in life.
“In this way, the fashion uniquely demonstrates how colonialism as well as agency was exercised in daily life,” writes Granados, adding, “It offers a better understanding of the social fabric that led to the very need for sovereignty. “.
The rules stated that certain races in particular had to wear certain clothes so that the authorities could retain social and economic control over them.
A 1582 ordinance in Mexico City, for example, ruled that women who were not indigenous could not wear traditional indigenous clothing, such as the tunic. huipil and cueitla wrap skirt (which would have exempted them from certain taxes that protected indigenous populations were not liable for, among other freedoms).
What is perhaps a looping moment with today, where artisanal and traditional clothing is more widely appreciated (if not fashionable), indigenous clothing was a status symbol during colonial rule (which, according to Granados , could have been considered a cultural appropriation of the colonial era).
Ordinary non-indigenous women were expected to dress in the Spanish style, with a asayo (skirt), a blouse, a rebozo (shawl) and a tapapies (petticoat). Black women often covered their heads and upper bodies with the tapapies. Women with more means could have a corset tied in the front of their blouse, a nod to the influence of French fashion. Male Native “commoners” wore straw hats, while nobility wore felt hats. And so on the distinctions.
“Each group was supposed to wear specific clothes so they could be recognized,” says Granados. “The Spanish crown was very worried about the way people were mixing because it was not possible to tax them correctly because it was a problem of identifying in which box each one [group of] people were, as it is today and as it still is. And I think that’s a big difference in understanding how colonialism worked differently in the Americas versus the United States or India or any other colonial environment.
Some of these sartorial distinctions will be visible in the caste paintings on display at the exhibition. These paintings, intended to depict “an ideal version of what colonial society was like”, according to Granados, depict different people of different ethnicities and wearing different fashions engaged in various activities befitting their class or caste, hence the genus name (e.g. nobility doing nothing, working class engaged in trade). A series of similarly styled pieces from Peru will be on display in the United States for the very first time at Blanton.
As these different ethnic groups continued to mix, and with Mexico City in particular a trading center, the region’s textiles also improved – which visitors to the exhibition will be able to see, including a set of silk samples from Mexico sent with official reports to the King of Spain – taking on new traits and characteristics.
“Traditional uncus, for example, those tunics made in Peru which were so important to the Incas and which were made of wool, began to be made of cotton with silk embroidery. The huipiles which were made with cotton, they began to be made with silk. Also, the dyes were different. The silk was dyed with local insects, the cochineal [a red-hued insect], for example. So there was a constant influence between them,” says Granados. “We are going to have in the show a painting of a native caciqueor leader, who wears a huipilvery traditional women’s clothing, and it’s embroidered with an eagle…it’s a [Spanish] regalia, so there was a constant influence.
Again, there is the often contentious line between cultural influence and appropriation. But this exhibition is not intended to deepen this controversy, but rather to educate in order to enlighten.
What Granados wants visitors to take away from the exhibit is a deeper understanding of the various influences on fashion and clothing during colonial rule, which was by no means solely dictated by the colonizers. She also wants the industry to better capture the contribution of indigenous groups to fashion and textiles in the region, which remains a thriving industry today – not a niche only noted when a European luxury designer makes it their own. for the track.
“These textile traditions changed constantly, but they were very much alive in colonial times as much as they still are today,” she says. “[The exhibit] will also bring the conversation to what the colonial experience was really like in Latin America.
It’s about visibility and adding to the fashion canon what has long been omitted in favor of Eurocentric narratives.
Among the curator’s favorite pieces? A woman’s anacu (dress) of camelid fiber (member of the camel family) and cotton with embroidered stitching from the late 16th century, and a silk and cotton rebozo from the end of the 18th century. Of the latter, Granados says: “It was not an object to be worn every day but it has images of [Mexico City] and I think it’s very interesting how this particular rebozoand also others who do this too, they were used as objects to show the pride of Mexico City at the center of many influences, and you can see the embroidered figures show European and native fashion.
The “Painted Cloth” exhibit runs at the Blanton from August 14 through January 8, 2023. The coffee table book of the same name, with deeper context for those willing to dig, is available for pre-order through the University of Texas Press and will be published at the same time as the exhibition. On October 21, an adjacent symposium (via Zoom), “The Fabric of the Spanish Americas,” will bring together scholars from across the Americas and the UK to further explore the social role played by textile arts in Latin America. colonial.
“I really hope this is just the start of a larger, more meaningful conversation,” Granados said.