Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dress for Success (Spanish Colonial Style)

As a volunteer at a living history museum, I find myself often torn over attire while I'm working on the ranch.  In my almost 10 months of involvement with the museum, I've spent a lot of time looking for information on Spanish Colonial attire for women, and found that where there's plenty of illustrations of men's outfits, illustrations of women's clothing seemed extremely rare.

In some cases, it seems that the diversity in men's clothing had more to do with status than anything else, and perhaps the reason there are so few historic illustrations is that women simply didn't hold the social/ economic importance that men did.  Women were still, after all, without the freedoms and status we enjoy today.  While men had diversity in dress according to occupation, women had one primary occupation:  to tend to the home and to be a hostess to her husband's social and business contacts.

There seems to be a lot of opinions (often conflicted) about what Spanish Colonial era women would be wearing in New Mexico.  There are certainly records of families bringing silks and dresses up El Camino Real from Mexico city, but after spending days in the hot New Mexico sun spinning on a supported spindle, washing fleece, and dyeing wool, I can hardly imagine a Spanish lady wearing such fine clothing on a day to day basis.  If it were me, I'd save such clothing for special events or guests.

Finding such formal wear with a search of Spanish Colonial Gowns online doesn't yield much, and the paintings and illustrations of finer clothing look like clothes worn in much of Europe at the time, and don't have features that scream "Spanish".  Even the high tortoise shell combs and the lace mantilla were later, and the dress styles were commonly shared across Europe.  A little research seems to indicate that this is because Spain was the leader in ladies fashion at the time, and much of what was being worn (yes, even in England) was derived from Spanish influences.

That leaves me to some simple fashions to try to mimic for my day to day volunteer day at the ranch.

Styles are somewhat simple.  Women closed their garments with ties more often than buttons, which were more common in men's clothing.  Ruffles and lace were used in many outfits, especially at the neck and sleeves.  Skirts were a common style, which held together with ties that wrapped around the waist, rather like wearing two aprons front to back.  Some records refer to this skirts being shorter than what was popular in Europe and later in the Eastern (British) Colonies, and considering the harsh conditions and distances traveled along the El Camino Real, I have to wonder if the skirt length was for practical reasons (mobility) or simply because young women were outgrowing their skirts without the access to frequent replacements.

Shoes seem to be a sticking point.  There are frequent illustrations of plain slip on flats, or slightly heeled open heel shoes, and there are references to moccasins.  The discussion of shoes is, for me, the most interesting discussion when it comes to Spanish Colonial dress, because it speaks to social order, ethnic pride, and practicality.

I have friends who live in South America, and are still very proud of their Spanish heritage.  They consider themselves "white" (as opposed to "indian") and are surprised when (US) Americans do not view them as such.  I suspect that there was also some of that in Spanish Colonial culture, and that Spanish Women, especially women who were members of families with certain social/economic status, would not adopt "native" style in dress or in shoes.

On the other hand, there are records of a great deal of intermarriage between different ethnic groups in New Mexico, and while there are historical studies suggesting that children of such unions were of the lower status, baptismal records of indigenous adoptions would seem to suggest that perhaps men would want their children to hold their status regardless of their mother's bloodlines, and in an environment where colonists were 80% male, certainly there would be a huge number of men with non-Spanish wives who would want to maintain the status of the family.

If the women were brought up with non-Spanish mothers, or if the women themselves were "indian", then the barrier to adopting indigenous dress would be a great deal less... and frankly, I can say from experience, that walking up and down the hills to the river, or through the cactus in the fields, moccasins would make a great deal more sense.

Color in clothing seems to be another hot-button issue.  Certainly Spanish Colonial women loved their color. Cochineal and indigo were certainly brought up El Camino Real from Mexico City. But once again we have the conflict between style and sensibility.  Who would wear the expensive red fabrics while sitting on their knees grinding corn?   On the other hand, certainly women would want to look their best, as markers of status and for personal satisfaction.

There is an almost universal image we use for "woman colonist" which I was reminded of recently when I watched an episode of the British Sci Fi show, Doctor Who.  In it, the time traveling main character wound up on a human colony in the year 2472.  In it, the one woman main character colonist wore a simple brown ankle length skirt with a ruffle around the bottom, and a plain white blouse gathered loosely at the neck and (long) sleeves, with a wide brown belt.  It seems that no matter what era we think of, we go back to the same basic and practical idea of what a woman colonist would wear.  The question is, is this a realistic expectation of day to day colonial dress, or a rough stereotype and oversimplification of colonial life?

Recently the one thing I hadn't thought about except from a modern, practical point of view was the idea of pockets in clothing.  Women's pockets were separate garments in Spanish Colonial days, pockets were flat, often tear shaped pouches worn at the hips but tied around the waist with a thin band.   The pockets could be accessed though the openings on the sides of the colonial style skirts (which tied in the front inside the skirt and the back outside, again, like two aprons worn front to back but stitched up part of the sides and overlapping slightly)

Some websites to visit:
In the future, I'd love to start sewing and making my costumes more authentic.  These days I'm happy to modify a few thrift shop finds, but having elastic (which I hide under a apron or belt) and carrying a modern handled basket are compromises I find less and less comfortable with, as I become more aware of the why's of Spanish Colonial fashion, and the opportunity to discuss Spanish Colonial life through my own costuming.