Mar 3 • 8M

2. Redefining Fashion From Abya Yala

A short reflection on fashion in colonial Latin America

Laura Beltrán-Rubio
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“Pensar la moda” es un podcast + boletín bilingüe sobre moda histórica y contemporánea. Busca ofrecer perspectivas más críticas y sustanciales para entender —¡y pensar!— la moda latina en Latinoamérica y el mundo.
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I ended the first issue of Pensar la moda with a proposal to to constantly think and rethink Latin American and Latinx fashion. We need it to strengthen the diverse expressions of fashion in Abya Yala.1 I believe that a first step towards that aim is to redefine fashion from our local ideas and histories and from a deep knowledge of the diversity of cultures that have inhabited this territory since before the European invasion.

Today I explore one particular expression of fashion in Abya Yala—though I must confess, before I even start, that this is not an easy task.

As always, I understand the word “fashion” from an expansive point of view that rejects the hegemonic writing of fashion history—what Jennifer Craik has termed the “European-dictator model of fashion.”2 I build on the definition that I introduced last time (fashion as a “cultural construction of the embodied identity”) and add some more specific expressions of fashion as:

  1. A situated bodily practice that is enmeshed within our social worlds and becomes fundamental in the constitution of micro-social orders, as Joanne Entwistle has argued;3

  2. An ordinary system of everyday life, which participates in the creation and performance of our fluid identities, as Cheryl Buckley and Hazel Clark have explained;4 and

  3. A non-verbal system of communication or sign language, as Roland Barthes and Alison Lurie, among other scholars, have claimed.5

All of these definitions, I believe, respond to what Jennifer Craik called the “fashion impulse.” She explains that this impulse has been an inherent part of humanity pretty much since our first group interactions as a species. In Craik’s words:

…fashion should not be defined as exclusively the preserve of the culture of modernity but… other systems of fashion should be recognized and examined in their own terms.6

Such an examination has guided my own research, teaching practices, and even my public discourse on social media at least since I started my Ph.D. In fact, understanding the development of fashion in Abya Yala in its own terms has been the main motivation to write my dissertation, even before I knew I would be admitted into a Ph.D. program. I want to see how fashion evolves beyond identifying when and how Latin American fashion becomes a “bad” or “incomplete” copy of European fashions, both historically and today.

One of the objects—two, actually—that have opened more questions in my reflections on fashion in Abya Yala belong to a famous series of human “types” from Quito, signed by painter Vicente Albán and dated from 1783. Three women are represented wearing a splendid ensemble of chemise with lace trimmings, a faldellín (and A-shaped, ankle length skirt folded around the lower body and fastened with a faja or sash) and a bolsicón (a sort of apron-like bag worn over the abdomen). The “quality” of these women is denoted by the details of the textiles, the richness in the trimmings, and the particular choices of fashionable accessories, which include jewelry, hats, and natural flowers.7

Vicente Albán, “Sra. prinsipal con sunegra Esclava” (Noble Woman with a Black Enslaved Woman), 1783. Oil on canvas, 80 x 109 cm. Museo de América, Madrid, 00073. Photography by Joaquín Otero Úbeda.

A lot has been said about the strategies of representation in these paintings, but I’m interested specifically in the depictions of dress. What, exactly, are we looking at when we see the garments represented? How does it relate with what women wore on the streets of Quito? And what was the painter’s intention when choosing to depict these women dressed in this particular style?

Unfortunately, I’ll never be able to ask Vicente Albán directly any of this questions. But I do think that the joint analysis of these paintings, archival documentation, and published chronicles of the time offers some (initial) ideas.

First: The word “fashion” (actually “moda,” in Spanish) was already in use at this time to denote something similar to what we tend to identify with fashion today: something that has to do with the clothes currently in style and which suggests a certain preference for novelty and change.

Second: Fashion during the colonial period was closely related to the desire for a hierarchical society, where each echelon could be easily differentiated from others according to the styles of dress. This responded to both Andean and European ideals. But we cannot ascertain whether or not this hierarchy was actually valid. In fact, the popularity of sumptuary legislation, the written commentaries of foreign travelers, and even sermons from local priests reveal the contrary.

Finally (for now, at least): Fashion was a tool that women used as a strategy for resistance, just like we do today! And the faldellín was central to this resistance. From an Indigenous male gaze, it was associated with the Indigenous woman who betrayed her “race” and adopted the lifestyle imposed by European invaders. From the Spanish male gaze, it represented the prostitute who sold her body in exchange for “favors.” Yet women in Quito and its surroundings chose to dress their bodies in faldellines and construct their identities through them! It couldn’t be a coincidence, right?

I do have an idea of how to explain the preference for the faldellín among the women of Nueva Granada, but it is a bit too complex to share eight now. I did write an article for Miradas on the subject, which includes a summary in English. I will definitely let you know when it comes out! And I spoke briefly about some preliminary exploration I did on this subject a few years ago in Unravel: A Fashion Podcast.

At this point, though, I think I have more questions than answers, especially on the subject of Indigenous fashion and “the Indigenous” (whatever that means) in fashion. And I might need to invite someone more qualified than me (Dayana Molina, Annaiss Yucra, Jessica R. Metcalfe, Amber-Dawn Bear Robe?) to address these topics.

But something that has incited my curiosity lately comes from my dive into luxury—more than fashion per se—through early colonial “dictionaries” and “grammars” of muysccubun, the language of the Muysca that inhabited the northern Andean highlands.

Last week I came across a study that claimed that some of the Hispanic terms that were introduced into this language with the Spanish invasion were related to clothing: dress (vestido), cloth (paño), clothes (ropa), for example. Some of these might have denoted garments that were specifically Spanish or European, but I do wonder if there didn’t exist some equivalent terms in Muysccubun—or some that were close enough. Why, then, were these terms used in Spanish in communications between the Spanish invaders and the native Muysca population? Was it some sort of strategy of dominion and acculturation imposed by the invaders? Or could it be the reflection of Muysca ideas about fashion and dress? I haven’t found (yet) the word “moda” (fashion) in these publications, so I still have the question of what it could have meant to Muysccubun-speakers, even if/when they used a similar term in their own language.

I promise to continue my exploration of this subject and report back as I have better formed ideas.

For now, I close today’s edition. Thank you, thank you for being here and for reading me. Don’t hesitate to share your own reflections, ideas, and questions in the commentaries!

In the next issue, I will write about the need to find our own, local referents and aesthetics from Abya Yala. As always, it goes out in two weeks 🔥

—L

**The background music in the podcast is “Twisting Falling” by Ketsa (2022), used under an International Creative Commons License 4.0 with attribution (CC BY 4.0).

1

I use the expression “Abya Yala” to refer to what we commonly call “Latin America”. This expression comes from the Guna-dule nations that inhabit the territories of what we call Colombia and Panama today. Abya Yala means “perfectly ripe land” in their language and has been proposed as a non-Eurocentric option to call “the Americas” by several Indigenous nations from the continents since 1992.

2

Jennifer Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London: Routledge, 1994).

3

Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (London: Polity, 2000).

4

Cheryl Buckley and Hazel Clark, Fashion and Everyday Life: London and New York, 1890–2010 (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

5

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Oakland: University of California Press, 1990); Alison Lurie, The Language of Clothes (Owl Books, 2000).

6

Jennifer Craik, Fashion: The Key Concepts (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 19.

7

I use the term “quality” (translation of the Spanish word “calidad”) to refer to the socio-racial classification of people during the colonial period. This term us closely related—though not exactly synonymous—to expressions like “caste” and “race”, which have been used more commonly in discussions of Colonial Latin America.