Fashion and Femininity in the Newborn Colombia

[ Spanish]

Carmelo Fernández Tipos Blanco Mestizo y Zambo
Carmelo Fernández. Tejedoras y mercaderas de sombreros nacuma en Bucaramanga. Tipos blanco, mestizo y zambo, 1850, watercolour on paper, 23 x 30 cm. Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

Perhaps one of the first lessons I learned in my career as an Economic Historian was that, throughout the centuries, history has been created through the negotiation between traditional values and new emerging norms that evolve with changing societies. Constantly—and regardless of what we may think—most of the “traditions” we know are actually much more recent than we believe they are and, in most cases, as Eric Hobsbawm avidly explains, they are also invented. The Colombian 19th century saw the creation of the traditions that continue to rule the society from a balancing act between the new values of the independence and the old Colonial Spanish standards. Many of them, additionally, emerged from a current of thought heavily influenced by the French Enlightenment and by the writings of intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau.

*This article was originally published in Spanish in 

In a similar fashion, two French writers inspired my Master’s Thesis: Daniel Roche, social and cultural historian, and Roland Barthes, philosopher, linguist and semiotician, who understands fashion as a language through which meanings can be created and communicated. In his book The Culture of Appearances, Roche studies the birth of a consumer society in 18th-century France—from which our own consumerist society emerged—claiming that it was only possible thanks to the courts of Louis XV, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. To Roche, the study of fashion is essential to the study of social phenomena that exist at a determined point in time; fashion is the “mistress of civilisation” and, in understanding it, we understand the codes and principles that organise a particular society.

With these two ways of thought in mind, I embarked on the study of the construction of nationhood, of the creation and diffusion of the Colombian national identity through clothing. And, although I had to leave topics in masculinity outside of my account—mainly for logistics-related reasons—I managed to uncover some of the most beautiful characteristics of femininity, of what it meant to be a woman, in the first nationalist discourses that emerged in Colombia. Moreover, I found out that many of the paradigms, of the ways in which la patria (the nation)—and her daughters—continue to structure the Colombian society, even two centuries after it first claimed its independence from the Spanish Empire.

LOTV - Museo Nacional de Colombia, Virgen del Rosario de Chiquinquirá
Anónimo. Virgen del Rosario de Chiquinquirá, siglo XVII, oil on fabric. Museo Nacional de Colombia, 30.3.1997.

Like most 19th-century Western societies, following the religious tradition that had been evolving since the Middle Ages, the ideal Colombian woman was a faithful representation of Virgin Mary: humble, pious, domestic. But it was Rousseau—if anyone at all—who created some of the most striking standards of femininity that prevailed in these 19th-century societies. In his writings, Rousseau proclaimed an ideal woman that stayed at home to become a virtuous mother and whose only mission in the newborn French Republic was that of bringing up exemplary citizens to ensure the future of the nation; she, through her (male) children, would always defend the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. This argument was framed by Rousseau outside of the already invalid religious myths, and placed it within the studies of nature, which were the quintessential part of this century of Enlightenment: if the woman was, naturally, who would carry the child in her womb, she was therefore not made for a labour outside maternity. In this way, the 19th-century woman (of Colombia and the West) was relegated to the domestic field, to the household, and her participation in any public space and, especially, in politics, was strictly forbidden—or, what is even worse, limited to the Catholic rite of marriage!

Like most 19th-century Western societies, additionally, dress in Colombia was an essential element in the performance of identity: the clothes were the person, and this type of metonymy was taken to the extreme in the literary current of Romanticism. The greatest writers of the century, beginning with Balzac himself, embarked in the richest descriptions of their characters; descriptions that, beyond highlighting the characteristics of their personalities—which the reader uncovers as he reads the novel—highlight their way of speaking, the details of their clothing, their manners and ways of acting. Appearance, then, becomes the most vivid reflection of the spirit; and 19th-century literature and art did nothing more than diffusing this way of thought.

Carmelo Fernandez Socorro Notables de la Capital
Carmelo Fernández. Socorro, Notables de la Capital, 1850, watercolour on paper. 29 x 21 cm. Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

In Colombia, the most dignified representation of Romanticism was conceived by Jorge Isaacs, and the most vivid representation of the type of woman that was constructed with the consolidation of the republic was the female heroin of María. Always covering the entirety of her body with her clothes, always looking down when her beloved Efraín addresses her, and always taking care of the child of the family, María is the perfect incarnation of the Catholic Virgin. Efraín, narrator of the novel, introduces her virginal image to us:

…the abundant chestnut hair arranged in two braids, one of them holding an ingrown carnation. She wore a dress of light muslin, almost blue, of which could be seen only part of the bodice and the skirt, as a shawl of purple fine cotton hid her bosom up to the base of her throat of matte whiteness. As the braids returned to her back, from which they slide when she inclined to serve, I admired the underside of her deliciously contoured arms, and her hands groomed like those of a queen.

This image, although slightly changing as the novel flows, is what remains throughout the narration. The braids, which tie up her natural—and thus savage—hair represent the domestication of the 19th-century woman, and the red carnation reveals the contained sexuality, her virginity. The muslin of her dress, which drapes over the curves of her body with its vaporous delicacy, reveals a neoclassical allusion to the beauty of Greco-Roman deities, an image also alluded by the contoured arms, which positions María herself as a mythical goddess. But any trace of nudity that might be suggested by the draping muslin is instantly hid under the shawl that covers her body; a shawl that alludes to the whiteness of her race, to the Spanish type as the national ideal, also proclaimed by the white hands of a queen. If María is to be a goddess, it is through her closeness to the most important tradition that Colombia inherited from its Mother Country: Catholicism. María is the ideal woman because she is the personification of the Virgin.

Carmelo Fernandez Velez Notables de la capital
Carmelo Fernández. Vélez, Notables de la Capital, 1850, watercolour on paper. 21 x 30 cm. Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

The drawings of the Comisión Corográfica, hired by the Colombian government as part of the process of nation-formation—and thus with an inevitably political character—reveal this same ideal of a woman. The portraits of “notable” people from the capitals of Vélez and Socorro, created by Carmelo Fernández in 1850, reveal women covered from the neck down, who seem to be in public only to act as companions to their men.

But if the woman was meant to be a faithful representation of the Virgin, she also lived in the shadow of Eve, the original sinner. And, to the scandal of many, it is not difficult to find examples of virtuous women that challenge the docile ideal of femininity promulgated by traditionalist thinkers such as José María Vergara y Vergara, who encouraged women to become their most virginal selves through personal correspondence and articles in periodicals. Even in the notable woman of Socorro (above) drawn by Carmelo Fernández we see a seductive gaze in her eyes which, instead of evading the eyes of the (male) observer—like María—smiles at him smartly, despite being completely dressed in pure white. In María we see the undone braids, the skirt slightly lifted, the falling shawl. A dweller of Tundama portrayed by Carmelo Fernández even purposefully lifts her skirt, scandalous gesture which, although showing her belonging to the high society of “booted” people—in contrast with the barefoot people—shows an act of rebellion against the virginal standards of femininity in the 19th century.

Carmelo Fernandez Habitantes notables
Carmelo Fernández. Tundama, Habitantes notables, 1851, watercolour on paper. 21 x 31 cm. Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia.

And the greatest example of rebellion is presented by Manuela, protagonist of the homonymous costumbrist novel written by Eugenio Díaz Castro. Don Demóstenes, narrator of the novel introduces her by the river,  de la novela la introduce en el río, “loosening her thoughts and her voice, while she finished her duty” and with her “bare feet inside the water, the hair loose, and covered with an underskirt of blue fabric that went from the shoulders to the knees (chingado ) and the body unfolded to submerge the clothes in the water.” It is this joyful rebelliousness what remains with the character until the end of the story: constantly half-naked, with her curly hair and the shawl tied to the waist, the image of Manuela would have most likely made José María Vergara y Vergara shriek in horror.

Manuela’s rebelliousness does not end with transgressing María’s virginal clothing; Manuela even manages to cross-dress, capital sin in any Western 19th-century society, to escape from the dangers that ambush her in her parish and escape to live happily with her boyfriend in Ambalema. This town at the shores of the Magdalena river is identified as hell in the novel, a reference not only to the intense heat of the region but also to the alternative lifestyle it presents to the woman: this is the place where she can work and take care of herself, where, dressed with colourful dresses and beautiful golden jewels, she can dance and drink aguardiente without having to worry about the kitchen and other household labours. And this is the most marvellous creation by Eugenio Díaz Castro.

Just like Policarpa Salavarrieta, heroine of the Independence, María and Manuela die in their cause. María, not being able to fully personify the virgin she so much admires, constantly falling in the dangerous angelical playfulness that brings her closer to the fallen angel of Eve than the ascended virgin, dies before completely staining her dress of white muslin. Manuela, on her part, dies to show the Colombian women that they can make their own Ambalema out of their country, where the construction of femininity needs not be imposed by the power of the patriarchy. Manuela invites Colombian women to appropriate their own shawls, to wear them in the ways that most truly identify with their independent selves and, thus, to claim their power to construct an alternative discourse of femininity (still pending) in the country.