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A Distant Mirror: Fashion and Identity in Colonial Latin America

A Distant Mirror: Fashion and Identity in Colonial Latin America 1


A Distant Mirror: Fashion and Identity in Colonial Latin America

Pedro Jose Diaz: Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivera

Pedro Jose Diaz, Portrait of Dona Maria Rosa de Rivera, Countess of Vega del Ren, about 1785, Lima, Peru.
Oil on canvas.
Lent by the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Collection.

On the final weekend of the Denver Art Museum’s Yves Saint Laurent retrospective, I was lucky enough to attend a gallery talk discussing the role of fashion in Spanish Colonial art. Appropriately, the day of the talk was also the birthday of Frida Kahlo, who no doubt would have enjoyed speaker Patricia Tomlinson’s exploration of the fusion of cultures — Native American and European, Asian and African– in colonial Latin America, and her discussion of the use of dress by artists and their subjects to express the complexity of their identities.

Colonial Latin American art and culture are not immediately familiar to many in the English-speaking world. The lavish baroque flowering of art, architecture, music, and literature which followed the Spanish conquest of the Americas does not much resemble anything in the Anglo- American experience. Compare, for instance, the lives and careers of seventeenth-century New England poet Anne Bradstreet and her Mexican contemporary, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Bradstreet’s poetry was largely private, while Sor Juana’s skills as a poet, dramatist, and composer were heavily in demand in the courtly world of colonial Mexico, despite the controversy she aroused as a female scholar, a nun who had taken the veil in order to ensure the maximum freedom in which to pursue her intellectual interests. (Another telling detail, suggesting the greater visual and material riches of the Spanish colonies — no visual record of Bradstreet exists, while Sor Juana was painted at least three times.)

Today, to step into galleries dominated by devotional paintings lavished with gold, surrounded by ornate furnishings in which the familiar shapes of the baroque and the rococo have evolved in sometimes startling ways, is to realize just how much the world created by Puritan colonists was based on the rejection not only of the native culture they found, but also of much of the European culture they left behind.

But in New Spain, for all the brutality of the conquest, the cross-fertilization of cultures was widespread. (As can be seen in the Peruvian rococo painting just acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, in which a multiracial group enact a fête galante with mythological overtones on the banks of the Rímac river). This phenomenon, as expressed in dress, was the focus of Patricia Tomlinson’s talk. Tomlinson, a former archaeologist who now designs her own line of retro-inspired fashion, as well as working on the New World department’s curatorial staff, may be uniquely qualified for this approach.

In a portrait by Pedro Jose Diaz, a creole (that is, American-born) aristocrat, Doña Maria Rosa de Rivera, Countess of Vega del Ren, poses before a stylized European backdrop of columns and drapery. Her clothes reflect an unashamed opulence – gold brocade layered over more gold brocade, diamond and pearl jewelry at her wrists, neck, and ears, more jewelry visible on the dressing table before her. There are even diamond buckles on her shoes. Yet the most intriguing detail, says Tomlinson, are the multiple braids in which she wears her hair. Though the origin of this style is not certain, it far more closely resembles the styles worn by mummified sacrificial victims of the Pre-Columbian period than it does any European style.

Continuity with the Incan past is even more evident in two other works in the museum’s permanent collection. In an Immaculate Conception with Indian Donor, painted in the early 1700s in either Peru or Bolivia, the donor – the man who commissioned the painting – wears a wool cloak in the current European fashion over a brilliant red shirt – it is an uncu, dyed with cochineal, a sign of status in the Inca world, forbidden to commoners under Incan law. A more inclusive sentiment is expressed by the native Andean garment seen in St Joseph with the Christ Child, painted in Bolivia around the year 1710 by Melchor Perez Holguin – the Christ child wears an elaborately patterned sash, woven in the style of the indigenous Aymara people, forging a link between the painting’s viewers and their newly introduced savior.

Melchor Perez Holguin, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child

Melchor Perez Holguin, Saint Joseph with the Christ Child, about 1710.
Potosi School, Bolivia. Oil on canvas.
Denver Art Museum; Bequest of Robert J. Stroessner.

Two secular works from eighteenth-century Mexico reflect even wider-ranging influences. Mexico was a center of trade between Europe and Asia, a link reflected in the format, even more than the content, of a rococo folding screen also in the museum’s collection. The folding screen as a type of furniture was borrowed from east Asia, and the small decorative panels along the bottom of this example hint at those origins. The scene depicted is officially entitled Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home, but Tomlinson says it is known behind the scenes as “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll”, as it shows the Beautiful People of colonial Mexico enjoying all the pleasures their world had to offer.

Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home

Garden Party on the Terrace of a Country Home, Anonymous, about 1730 – 1750.
Mexico. Ten panel folding screen, oil on canvas.
Gift of the Collection of Jan and Frederick Mayer.

The fashionable woman at the card table at far left, wondering how to play her latest hand, wears imported Asian silk, as does the woman in the center, apparently responding to an improper suggestion from her male companion. The woman behind her wears an ornate version of the native Mexican rebozo, trimmed with silver tassels. The woman playing her guitar amidst a group of men drinking at the right wears a more traditional rebozo. Another woman seated at the card table holds a cigarette – perfectly acceptable behavior in colonial Mexico.

We catch a glimpse of similar fashions and pleasures, enjoyed in far more humble surroundings, in a beautiful casta painting by José de Alcibar. The casta painting, unique to colonial Latin America, was a proto-anthropological genre illustrating the process of racial mixing in a society where whites, blacks, and Indians lived side by side. Many of these images engage in a kind of racial profiling, showing the alleged antisocial tendencies of some mixed-race categories, but this quiet domestic scene suggests the work of Chardin.

José de Alcíbar: From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto

José de Alcíbar, From Spaniard and Black, Mulatto (De español y negra, mulato), about 1760.
Oil on canvas.
Denver Art Museum, Collection of Frederick and Jan Mayer; TL-24504.
Photo © James Milmoe.

A Spanish man, wearing a banyan, a fashionable leisure garment of printed cotton imported from India, lights his cigarette while his African partner prepares a pot of chocolate (like tobacco, a product of the New World). She wears a traditional striped rebozo and delicate pearl earrings – more common in the Americas than in Europe, and so an affordable everyday luxury. The couple’s son, bracketed by his parents, helps his father hold the charcoal brazier used as a lighter. The soft grisaille of the background reveals a shelf of dishes, emphasizing the enclosed, domestic nature of this intimate family space.

I started this entry with a reference to Frida Kahlo, and I’ll finish it with another. The vernacular Mexican style which Kahlo loved (and which helped to camouflage her injured leg) has its origins in the cultural and material exchanges of the colonial world. Known as the China Poblana, romantic legends trace it to a Christian convert of Asian origin (some say Chinese, some Mongolian, some east Indian) who was brought to city of Puebla as a slave, and died as a popular saint, venerated by all. More mundane theories trace the name to the Chinese cloth wealthy Pueblan women bought for their maids’ dresses. (Wonderful footage here of Kahlo wearing China Poblana as she and Diego Rivera welcome Trotsky and his wife in 1938).

A style of the people, worn without a corset, the China Poblana acquired overtones both of sanctity and licentiousness . Rebecca West describes how Fanny Calderón de la Barca (a Scottish writer married to the first Spanish ambassador to independent Mexico) was pressured out of wearing the China Poblana to a costume ball, suggesting the dress was associated by some with prostitution.

West finds this tangle of associations wholly appropriate to Kahlo, for whom self-presentation was a work of art: “So, Frida Kahlo wore the dress of an alien saint, which was perhaps also the uniform of successful prostitutes; which was in either case a boast of beauty, and an insistent demand that, though beauty is only lent to us, the loan should be laid out to the best advantage before the merciless lender takes it back.”

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