Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Spanish in Clothes

The Museum of Costume / Museo del Traje
09/10/11 - Avenida de Juan de Herrera, 12
Fashion has been on my mind.  Stores have laid out their fall collections of rust-colored sweaters and gray wool topcoats, but summer lingers on. I have been surprised to see Madrileñas carrying traditional wooden fans to wave off the stifling afternoon heat—I thought fans went out of use in the nineteenth century.  It’s a modern-day incarnation of “casticismo”—fidelity to Spanish tradition in the face of foreign influences, as described in an exhibit at the Museum of Costume: In 1766, during the reign of Carlos III, a popular revolt (Motín de Esquilache) was sparked when the government banned men’s traditional Spanish capes and broad-brimmed hats.*

Another exhibit describes a tradition that started in the same decade, when the fashionable people of Madrid began to parade along the newly-created, broad avenue facing the Prado, displaying their fine carriages and clothes. (Today this street is called Paseo del Prado).  My family and I live near a large sports park encircled by a wide, brick path and a track for joggers.  While it’s safe to say that the good people of Madrid dress well, they dress their toddlers even better.  Every evening, entire families from my barrio turn out to enact their own version of the Paseo, accompanied by visions of cuteness in pastel booties and flower-sprigged cotton dresses, or light-blue oxford shirts and miniature khaki shorts. 

Goya's other Maja (with clothes)
The approach to the award-winning building of the Museum of Costume (constructed 1973) is unsettling—the central tower looms over the entry like a huge plinth that might topple forward at any moment.  The museum has examples of Spanish regional dress, as well as early toreador costumes, and the Spanish popular costume called majo (maja for women).  The original wooden interior of an 1847 Chocolate Bar called El Indio provides an authentic backdrop; the coffee mill is decorated with the figure of a South American Indian.

Fashion magazines first became popular in the nineteenth century, during the Romantic age (see previous post on the Museum of Romanticism).  When the same fashion drawings appeared in Paris, New York and Madrid, elegant dress became a standardized, international phenomenon.  Most of the clothing here comes from the 18th-20th centuries, including colorful men’s jackets, ridiculous hoops skirts, awkward bustles, torturous corsets, voluminous undergarments, and some shimmering, beaded dresses from the Años Locos (Roaring Twenties). The exhibit ends with samples of the most famous Spanish designers: Balenciaga, Fortuny, and Pedro Rodríguez. 

Accessories also feature: shoes, gloves, bags, jewels, hats, parasols. Apparently, a new parasol was needed to match or complement each outfit, and harmonize with the hat.  As with fans, women gestured with parasols to convey coded language no longer taught in modern schools of courtship—but ripe for revival as the ozone layer shrinks.  Of special interest is a delicate silk stocking from the eighteenth century, striped all the way up the leg with staves and musical notes that might actually create a melody.  One can only imagine the seduction in which it must have played a role.
*The locals in 1766 were already restless due to the high price of food and other woes. Authorities said it was too easy to hide weapons under the voluminous capes. 


  1. While it’s safe to say that the good people of Madrid dress well, they dress their toddlers even better.

    You really got that one right. My friends' grandchildren have the most exquisite layettes imaginable. All hand-knit by the other grandmother...BUT shared with nieces and nephews. Beautiful but practical. Don't know what happens if both two moms are pregnant at the same time, but the Spanish seem to know all about family-planning.

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