You are what you wear? Studies of fashion play a key role in understanding historical social and cultural structures, as demonstrated by Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America, a current exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art. The show brings together more than seventy artworks and artifacts to explore the material and artistic culture of colonial Latin America during the 1700s.
Fashion as we know it today emerged during the Renaissance. From being universally impersonal, garments came to be seen as particular and national. European nobles took pride in flaunting the native dress of their homelands until the practice fell by the wayside as foreign modes of dress—particularly French—came to dominate the scene. A cream-colored silk robe à la française decorated with metallic embroidery, Watteau pleats, panniers to support the skirt, and an embroidered stomacher is English in origin, but French in sensibility. A similar dress worn by the noblewoman in Miguel Cabrera’s portrait Doña Maria de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes shows that a French-oriented fashion sense was shared by aristocrats on either side of the Atlantic, a pattern that became more pronounced after the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714 with the Bourbon king Philip V on the throne of Spain.
While European grandees of the New World were characterized in art by their French-ness, natives’ otherness was signaled by their homespun attire. Yndios serranos, tributarios, civilizados, a family tableau in oil produced by an artist from the circle of Cristóbal Lozano, contains a series of keenly observed details of Peruvian dress. On the left, a woman with a chumpi woven belt carries her baby in a brightly colored kaypina. Her husband wears a poncho and a felted hat of foreign make. And the mother spins wool—a reassuring symbol of colonial productivity for the painting’s elite Spanish audience, but which, in the context of the show, we might take as a symbol for the perpetuation of fashion, its vagaries, and inequities.
Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America • Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin • to January 8, 2023 • blantonmuseum.org