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The Complex Fashion History of Colonial Spanish America

The Complex Fashion History of Colonial Spanish America

Virgen de los Sastres [Virgin with Tailors]” (c. 1750), Cusco, Peru, oil and gold on canvas, 57 1/2 x 40 3/8 inches (Museo Pedro de Osma, Lima, courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art, all images courtesy the Blanton Museum of Art)

Early images of the peoples of the Americas produced for European audiences often depicted their subjects wearing little more than a loincloth. The lack of clothes was meant to imply a sense of wildness, inferiority, and lack of sophistication. Unsurprisingly, these pictures were extremely far from the truth: For many Indigenous groups in what is now Latin America, textiles and garments were among the most valuable materials in daily and sacred life. The European invasion set off complex negotiations between cultures for whom textiles and clothing conferred social status, ritual meaning, and political power.

Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America at the Blanton Museum of Art is an expansive exploration of the vital but little-understood roles of fabric and its representations across the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries featuring more than 70 objects, including elaborately crafted textiles, paintings, sculptures, prints, and furnishings from Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.

Some of the most surprising and fascinating objects on display clearly encapsulate the complicated ways that Indigenous and European traditions cross-pollinated through textiles and accessories. One object, a silver pin called a ttipqui or tupo used to fasten Andean women’s dresses, is carved with a double-headed eagle, which was a major symbol of the Spanish empire. “The woman wearing this was trying to make a statement that she was bicultural, and that she was able to navigate these two systems and codes,” curator Rosario I. Granados explained on a recent exhibition tour. 

Ttipqui pin (17th century), Peru, silver, 8 15/16 x 2 1/4 inches (Denver Art Museum: Stapleton, Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family, image courtesy the Denver Art Museum)

In another gallery, a large painting made in 18th-century Cusco shows an Indigenous noble dressed in European-style clothing at the foot of a large statue of Our Lady of Bethlehem, which is itself draped in ornate gold and scarlet robes. Posing with his hands together in prayer, the donor signals his adherence to the Catholic faith, a position which likely afforded him some privilege within the Spanish Colonial political structure. Other commentaries on race, class, and gender identities appear in Mexican and Peruvian casta paintings, where women of various castes create textiles through spinning, sewing, and lacemaking.

“When we see the art of the Colonial period, we have to be mindful that these objects were made for an environment that is definitely not an art museum. Rather, they’re part of a ritual experience,” Granados noted. With its intricate weavings, passionate devotional paintings, and glittering period garments, the show provokes a vividness that brings the Colonial era to life for today’s viewers.

Nuestra Señora de Belén con un donante [Our Lady of Bethlehem with a Donor]” (18th century), Cusco, Peru, oil with gold leaf on canvas, 105 1/4 x 73 x 2 1/2 inches (collection of the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Foundation)
Miguel Cabrera, “Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes” (c. 1760), oil on canvas, 43 x 33 inches (Brooklyn Museum, Museum Collection Fund and Dick S. Ramsay Fund)
“Inca Noblewoman,” (c. 1850–1870), Cusco, Peru, oil on canvas, 25 × 21 3/4 × 2 1/4 inches (Denver Art Museum, gift of Dr. Belinda Straight by exchange and New World Department Acquisition Funds)
Inmaculada Concepción (Immaculate Conception)” (c. 1740–1780), Guatemala, silver and oil on wood, 34 × 12 3/4 × 6 1/4 inches
Conversión de un curaca por inspiración de la Virgen de Copacabana (Conversion of an Indigenous Nobleman by Intercession of Our Lady of Copacabana)” (c. 1700–30), Cusco, Peru, oil on canvas (Museo de Arte de Lima, gift from Petrus and Verónica Fernandini)
Chasuble (back) (c. 1750), Mexico, silk and metallic thread embroidered on silk satin, center back length 82.6 × 27.5 inches (Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City)
Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” (18th century), Cusco, Peru, oil and gold on canvas, 37 13/16 × 51 1/2 inches (collection of Carl and Marilynn Thoma)
Woman’s Dress and Petticoat (Robe à la française) (c. 1770), England, silk plain weave (faille) with metallic-thread supplementary-weft patterning and metallic-thread bobbin lace, center back length 52 5/8 inches; petticoat center back length 33 5/8 inches (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund, © Museum Associates/LACMA) 
Tunic (Uncu) (c. 17th century), camelid fiber, silk, metallic thread, 26 3/4 x 31 inches (Brooklyn Museum, gift of the Ernest Erickson Foundation, Inc.)
José Joaquín Magón, “De Yndio, y Cambuja, nace Sambahiga” (c/ 1770), Puebla, Mexico, oil on canvas, 35 13/16 × 45 1/4 inches (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid, photo Javier Rodríguez Barrera)
Unknown artist, circle of Cristóbal Lozano, “Negra de Guinea O criolla. Español. Producen. Mulatos” (c. 1770), Lima, oil on canvas, 39 3/8 × 49 3/16 inches (Museo Nacional de Antropología, Madrid, photo Javier Rodríguez Barrera)
“Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, (18th century), Cusco, Peru, oil and gold on canvas, 21 1/4 × 26 3/4 inches (Colección Barbosa Stern, Lima)
“Saint Lawrence” (18th century), Cusco, Peru, oil and gold on canvas, 32 11/16 × 24 13/16 inches (Colección Barbosa Stern, Lima)

Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America continues at the Blanton Museum of Art (200 E Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, Austin, Texas) through January 8, 2023. The exhibition was curated by Rosario I. Granados.