Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2023
Rosario I. Granados, ed. Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America Exh. cat. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press and Blanton Museum of Art, 2023. 248 pp.; 140 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (978-1477323977)
August 14, 2022–January 8, 2023

Painted Cloth offers a new dimension to the study of the Spanish Americas by asking how colonial subjects used fashion and fabric—painted, sculpted, woven, and worn—to think productively about the social and spiritual worlds around them. This stunning exhibition catalog showcases a selection of artworks and artifacts from primarily seventeenth- and eighteenth-century New Spain and Peru and was the result of fruitful collaboration with private collections worldwide. Thoughtfully curated and edited by Rosario I. Granados, Marilynn Thoma associate curator for art of the Spanish Americas at the Blanton Museum, the catalog marks the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of the art and material culture of the Spanish Americas at the Blanton. The catalog’s essays enhance the exhibition by delving into the active roles played by historically marginalized groups, elucidating the social and technical aspects informing the symbolic meaning of textiles and their expressive forms. It also highlights several less-studied artifacts, such as sewing tables and embroidered coverlets, placing domestic furnishings in conversation with the portraits of colonial elites and the sitters who used these items. From sewing boxes to embroidered chasubles, casta paintings to sumptuously dressed sculptures of the Virgin Mary, Painted Cloth thus reveals fabric in its multitudinous forms as a critical point of departure for writing inclusive histories of colonial Latin America.           

The catalog’s six chapters follow the themes of the exhibition. The first three chapters address the social lives of fabric, focusing primarily on labor conditions and sartorial practices. These chapters center on the women, across race and class, who embroidered garments for elite and ritual consumption, and the Black and Indigenous men who wove textiles in residences and textile mills. The emphasis on the private lives of women and how dress activated social connections that enabled women to transcend the domestic sphere is admirable. The final three chapters consider textiles and their agents, whether sacred images or social elites. Here, clothing as the nexus between bodies and the divine comes to the fore. The emphasis on techniques used to create the paintings and sculptures of Catholic holy figures and their fabric adornments illuminates the agency of people from different social niches involved in complex multimedia commissions. Altogether, the chapters of this stunning exhibition catalog stage an ambitious intellectual exercise that challenges readers to think critically about the relationship between materiality and epistemology. The authors show that knowledge production in Spanish colonial society was intensely mediated by the threads and fabrics that diverse agents engaged with on daily and ceremonial occasions.

In an insightful introduction, Granados synthesizes the robust, bilingual historiographies of fashion and fabric in the Ibero-American world. In the captivating first chapter, Julie McHugh uses archival documents to reconstruct the material conditions surrounding making luxury and low-quality fabrics in New Spain and Peru. The essay foregrounds private residences as centers for textile production and sites of technical and social acumen. Notably, McHugh takes readers into sala de estrado, the semipublic front room of an elite residence where women created needlework and embroidery for personal and ceremonial use and traces the footsteps of the itinerant Indigenous weavers who worked in the private homes of their patrons in Peru.

While McHugh explains how to read the codes embedded into the surroundings where textile makers labored, Ana Paulina Gámez Martínez shows us how to interpret fashionable gowns and heirloom garments. Reflecting on how adornment and attire have served to mark racialized hierarchies in the colonial Americas, Gámez analyzes the relationship between sumptuary laws and the depiction of garments and cloth furnishings in casta paintings, a genre in which racial mixing is the subject matter. A highlight of the chapter is its transfixing reconstruction of the elaborate gowns Indigenous and criolla women wore for portraits. It was complicated for women to put on and take off the luxurious costumes, as such paid assistants stitched the women into their outfits. This aspect of adornment illuminates the performative and labor dimensions of fashionable dress while also positing the gown as a site for social encounters. 

In the third chapter, Ricardo Kusunoki Rodríguez addresses the emulation of lustrous fabrics in the portraits of elites of Spanish descent painted in Lima during the second half of the eighteenth century. Kusunoki sees the interplay of verisimilitude and artifice in the portraits as a representational system mined by artists and patrons alike to gain social capital, thereby revising the traditional view of limeño portraits as conspicuous displays of ostentation and superfluity. For artists, emulating sumptuous textures presented aesthetic and technical opportunities to showcase their individual styles. For patrons, the juxtaposition of the almost tactile painted surfaces and the restrained gestures of the sitters engendered a horizon of ambiguity mobilized by elites to convey socially expedient messages about the wealth and the integrity of the familial line that emanated beyond the canvas.

Shifting from aristocratic portraiture to devotional sculpture, Patricia Díaz Cayeros’s probes the capacity of clothing to “humanize celestial beings” (103). In 1585, the Third Mexican Council recommended that devotional images feature simulated painted or sculpted clothing rather than actual cloth adornment. This attempt to tamp down the tradition of dressing the saints inevitably failed, but the official ecclesiastical position impacted the devotional art industry. Polychrome sculptures with simulated silken textures and gold and silver brocade (estofado) proliferated. Yet the emphasis on carved and painted garments was tantamount to an attempt to displace the labor of the lay and religious women who had traditionally stitched the lace sleeves and embroidered the hems of the garments that adorned devotional figures, such as the Virgin Mary.

In the fifth chapter, Granados foregrounds the capacity of fabric to materialize bodies, holy and human. She challenges us to consider how women from across colonial society forged tactile proximities to the divine through the cloth they had embellished, emphasizing how textiles created realms of interaction not captured by the documentary archive. As a result, readers can reimagine women and Indigenous makers’ attachments to the devotional objects whose fabric garments they had made. Like Díaz Cayeros, Granados also focuses on “true portraits,” (131–32) a class of Catholic imagery that captures the formal and holy essence of venerated miracle-working statues and paintings. By copying and reworking authoritative models, colonial painters entered into centuries-long and global conversations about the visual and transcendent properties of cloth that elevated the expert and technical status of the artist.

Equally transatlantic in scope is Maya Stanfield-Mazzi’s chapter on the liturgical vestments and fabric furnishings that “clothed” (159) Catholic churches in the Spanish Americas. Drawing on church records and visual archives, Stanfield-Mazzi explains how the clothes and garments of the ecclesiastical hierarchy invested meaning into liturgical rituals that would have been familiar to laypersons as well. This attention to the iconography of liturgical vestments grounds her discussion of ritual cloth as a tool for explaining the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. The simulation of fabric in different media, such as an altar frontal wrought in silver, evoked the transmutation of matter, such as the host into the Body of Christ, by elucidating how surface features can allude to and belie the enduring substance of the referent. Collectively, these chapters exemplify the capacity of cloth, in its material and representational forms, to cross scholarly and material thresholds.

Painted Cloth is an indispensable introduction to the tradition of translating cloth into painting and sculpture in the Spanish colonial Americas. The catalog’s rich portrait of self-fashioning represents a critical contribution to art history. In particular, it challenges the binary conceptions and stereotypes that have historically informed the presentation of women in the fiercely-patriarchal colonial society. Fabric as a method thus complicates well-worn narratives about artistic agency, labor, and the ideologies of class, race, and gender because it enables us to write about historical people closer to the terms and artifacts that were meaningful to them. Painted Cloth also raises critical questions about the intersection of labor and performativity in the early modern world, inviting interdisciplinary and global conversations. A glossary of specialized technical terms makes the catalog accessible to non-specialist readers while capturing the precision and rigor the contributors carried into the archive. Copious full-page color illustrations complement the finely tuned analysis of individual artworks and artifacts. Of interest to students, instructors, researchers, and museum practitioners, the catalog will inspire a new generation of scholars and enthusiasts engaging with fashion history, religious studies, and colonial Latin American society.

Savannah Esquivel
Assistant Professor, History of Art, University of California, Riverside