Fashion as a Visual Marker of Community in the Spanish Empire

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; he sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain.” Funded by Queen Isabella I, Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus embarked on four voyages between 1492 and 1504. As a result, Castile would receive a flow of profits from these Spanish expeditions. However, the failure of several settlements meant that the crown of Castile began to lose such benefits. In 1521, Hernán Cortés, a tried and true scoundrel, invaded the Aztec Empire. Because this was indeed a Spanish takeover, by the 16th century, the culture of the motherland would meld to become a new culture of Colonial Spanish America. Rather largely, European wares had sparked a textile craze, or entusiasmo, making these timely sensations not of precedence, but rather the result of an incredible fashion movement. Fashion created a signature aesthetic of community in the Spanish Empire by the 18th century as this culture of “Spanishness” was so fiercely represented by the most luxurious cottons, even if these fine fabrics were used rebelliously.

With an aggressive history of going after acquisitions, it is no surprise that “Spaniards claimed the use of fine cotton cloth, including calicoes, chintzes, and taffetas…”1 amongst other things and historically and notoriously-other European nations had the finest. Prior to the 18th century, Spanish fashion had been dictated by sumptuary laws, just as so many other cultures, but by the late 18th century, “the monarchy was not so much concerned that non-Spaniards in the American colonies wanted to wear the same cotton cloths as Spaniards, but that these cloths would be purchased illegally from other European nations.”1 Maintaining their culture of Spanish dominance, the viceroyalty sought to make Spanish fine cotton textiles the only available for the people of the colonies, as it was unable to do business-manufacturing and trading-at the same level as the English, Dutch, and French. The spread of the fabrics of fashion had already grown exponentially, but once New Spain took claim, it became the natives’ way of life. The people of this civilization wanted it all, so much so the least able would indebt themselves for the reception damask, taffeta, silk, linen, or several other types of the upwards of thirty printed cottons that buyers in Mexico had available. In the motherland, however, just twelve types were available.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 8.12.08 PMSeveral cultures have a prevalence of sumptuary laws, which are meant to govern what could be worn. In the 17th century, women in Spain were forbidden from wearing tapadas, a modern, full-facial veil that left a women unseen and unknown. The veils supposedly evoked salacious feelings. Tapadas were penalized because it was supposedly “seductive, defiant, and disruptive of social order.”2 Men were intimidated by women because of the feelings of “flirtatiousness, freedom, and rivalries typically associated with the veiled women.”2 However, that didn’t stop some men from wanting to wear the tapadas themselves in order “to commit great wickness and profanations.”2 At the end of the 16th century, the appearance with a tapada was a fine of 3,000 maravedis, but by the mid-17th century, with the rise of cities, the penalty had more than tripled. While women were penalized for this specific veil, it was customary to wear rebozos, or face coverings. There was a plethora of veils, representing various religious and marital statuses.

While women were running amok, rebelling against the dominating laws inset by the men, the battle of the sexes entered neutral territory when the indigenous and the conquerors reproduced. Not only was it Spaniards and Mexicans reproducing, but also with the slaves and former slaves inhabiting this Spanish Empire. However, the crown still honored the pure of blood. “Peninsulares” referred to those born in Spain but inhabited the Americas for a short term of service to the crown. During this time of service, they were the highest on the social scale. “Criollos,” then, referred to Spaniards born in the Americas. While they could prove their pure, Spanish blood, they were viewed by the crown as below the Peninsulares but above Indians, Africans, and the growing population of mixed races. casta1 casta3 casta2All of these people really celebrated the mixing of races through Casta paintings that allowed them to define their own race and race relations. Now we view them as traditional Mexican paintings but depicted are the multiracial families typically with a mother, a father, and one child in their appropriate setting. This is one of the most telling artifacts of the prominent Spanish social culture we have, as there are endless variations of families set atop a telling background.

Colonial Spanish America holds such a vibrant history that is most often uncovered only at the base level. Rarely do we learn of such extreme power hunger that shines through taffeta and silk.

1: Vicenta, Marta V. The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles 1200-1850 Fashion, Race, and Colonial Textiles in Colonial Spanish America. Pg. 249.

2: Bass, Laura R., and Amanda Wunder. “The Veiled Ladies of the Early Modern Spanish World: Seduction and Scandal in Seville, Madrid, and Lima.” Pgs. 98,99,101,104.