Unveiling Fashion History Through Literature and Art

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Les Lorettes - Fashion History and Art

Paul Gavarni [Chevalier]. “Les Lorettes,” pl. 44, published in Le Charivari, 13 February 1843. Photo taken by me at the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Power of Prints”. Accession no. 57.581.15.

As I have mentioned before, my main emphasis in the research of fashion history focuses on the intersections between fashion, politics and identity. I am particularly interested in the late-colonial and postcolonial periods in Colombia and Latin America, and I am fascinated by the ways in which dress, and appearances in general, became central to the creation of an identity in the centuries where the “old” world was re-shaped into what we live today.

To study these intersections between fashion, politics and identity, however, is no easy task. In the case of Latin America, it is particularly difficult because most areas of cultural production have been understudied, especially in relation to fashion. Moreover, because collections of historical dress are virtually inexistent in the region—contrasting with the rich collections that abound in Europe and North America—as a fashion historian you have to become creative in the use of sources and borrow methodologies from a variety of areas of inquiry from different historical traditions.

Fashioning Femininity Dress Gender Identity 19th Century Colombia

In my case, the base of my research methodology has been the richness of work provided by costume historians in their study of historical dress through literature and art, and the works of Daniel Roche and Susan Hiner have been my main sources of inspiration. I have returned to sociologists and philosophers, particularly to the work of Judith Butler, to understand the conception gender as a social construct, and to historians to understand the characteristics that lie behind the notion of womanhood at certain moments in time. And I have borrowed from literary theory, where the study of foundational fictions has revolved around the ideas of “imagined communities” and the relationship between nation and narration, introduced by Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha respectively. By “mixing up” all these traditions, I have managed to understand the ways in which works of art were used to construct a particular imagined community from which an identity is to be constructed.

In most emerging societies, the process of construction of a national identity is produced using a strictly divided social structure, often gendered, which is created and re-created in literature and art. Writers and artists carefully portray a variety of characteristics for the ideal “national subject,” describing costume, manners, and even race and class in the process. Being one of the most visual characteristics of personality, dress thus becomes an increasingly important visual mechanism to show one’s identity: how one dresses has a direct relationship with the self, and one can reveal details about social status, gender, even morality, through the characteristics of dress. Practices of dress and the discourses on fashion surrounding them become “an important component of culture, crucial to the micro-order of daily life … and crucial to one’s relationship with self and others.”[1] Dress thus acquires a central role in shaping many societies from around the world.

Roland Barthes was one of the pioneers in the interpretation of the representations of language and pictures in material culture.[2] Building on semiology, which was introduced by Ferdinand de Saussure,[3] Barthes studied fashion as a language, within a verbal or written realm. He thus studies clothing as a contained sign system in which a garment can convey a particular meaning when placed in a specific context. The meaning of clothing is thus communicated through a process of signification, where the garment can be understood as a sign with two constituent parts: the physical signifier and the mental processes that reveal what is signified. Although Barthes introduces the concept of semiotics for the study of contemporary fashion, his treating of dress as a “written” medium through which mental associations emerge from the garments themselves is particularly useful for my analysis. In his view, the meaning of fashion resides in an imagined space that is created through the written allusions to clothing. Because my research deals with both written and visual accounts of dress, the treatment of the clothing worn by the characters I study as a language that conveys particular meanings, when placed in a specific context, becomes a key tool for my analysis.

Beyond being understood as a language, however, dress needs to be understood within the social, economic and political context in which it resides. Perhaps one of the earliest scholars to study the intrinsic relationship between the history of material culture and the history of social behavior was Fernand Braudel, in The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in 1949, where he studied history through the interaction between material life, economics and politics.[4] More recently, Daniel Roche built on this approach in The culture of clothing: Dress and fashion in the ‘ancien régime’, studying the history of dress in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Roche focuses on the constant interaction between costume trends and the social context, for, as he argues, “the history of clothing tells us much about civilizations; it reveals their codes.”[5] He uses a variety of visual and literary sources, and the descriptions of dress in them, as substitutes for the garments that no longer exist. While always remaining aware of the problem of bias in the representations of dress created by writers and artists, Roche also recognizes their potential as sources for the study of dress history; they both create impressions—sometimes of differences in status, race and gender—while revealing what is expected at the particular time in which they work, and can be of extreme importance in the inquiry of a scholar that knows how to take them with a grain of salt. The study of costume history becomes, therefore, “less a matter of achieving an illustrative metatext on the basis of the original texts of the novels, or of assembling from between them the realia, than of understanding the signifying elements of the story and their logic. Thus reality interrogates fiction.”[6]

Aileen Ribeiro and Anne M. Buck provide similar arguments for the use of art and literature in the study of dress history. Ribeiro positions the artist as a kind of historian, who analyzes and interprets clothing in the process of recording it in his work; the artist thus creates depictions of clothing that become important to the study of dress history because they reveal the culture, manners, and vision of their time.[7] Buck uses literature in the study of costume history and shows how analyzing the ways in which novelists use portrayals of clothing can enhance our understanding of the past, especially as they show what she calls “dress in action,” that is, the ways in which dress generates the codes for gender, politics, culture, and status.[8] Particularly in the nineteenth century, detailed descriptions of dress predominated in the writing of novels, a characteristic that has often been linked to the heyday of Romanticism. But, as Susan Hiner explains, these descriptions are extremely important in conveying the message the authors of the novels intend to share with their readership: “continuous references to elements of fashion, their circulation, and potential imitation of them are more than mere descriptive details. The discourse on fashion is in fact a cover for the social anxieties underlying [the] texts.”[9] Nineteenth-century novels—such as María and Manuela, which I studied in my thesis—thus present a type of metonymy in which “the clothes make the woman,”[10] and the descriptions of their dress can be translated to descriptions of their own character.


Although the close relationship between dress choices and social anxieties was common in every nineteenth-century society of the West, dress was of particular importance in Colombia and Latin America. The nature of dress in the region results from the overlapping socio-historical influences that have shaped costume and its relationship with cultural dynamics, as Regina A. Root explains in her introduction to The Latin American Fashion Reader. Social identities in Latin America, especially during the Colonial period, revolved around a discourse in which the structures of power and privilege present nudity as a symbol of the “barbarian” other and the clothed body as the representation of the “civilized” European.[11] Although by the mid-nineteenth century this notion of a fully clothed elite versus nude “savages” had been lost as a result of the Colonial period, the remains of this confrontation between clothed/civilized and nude/savage can be traced in the use of shoes: the boot became to symbolize the civilized individual, the member of the elite, and the bare foot or the foot half-shod with espadrilles—a kind of sandal made with natural fibers, often worn by country people—became to represent the nude savage.

Dress also became essential in the construction of a nineteenth-century Colombian society because, as Mariselle Meléndez explains, it is a system of visual representation that provided the opportunity for visual difference in Latin America. Such a creation of difference was particularly important at a time when skin color could no longer reveal differences in race and status between one person and another, a result of the increased miscegenation that took place in the country especially towards the end of the Colonial period.[12] Dressing habits thus became particularly important, and clothing became a threatening element in the societies of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, as it could enable people from lower sectors to look like their social superiors.

In this context, depictions of dress in both visual and written sources become vivid representations of the “dress in action,” and provide extremely valuable information to the costume historian, as they reveal cultural norms of the time and the social anxieties that surround dress practices. Moreover, and due to the political character of some of the artwork created during the times of nation construction, the types of dress portrayed in them become examples for the national subjects to mold their personalities around. The construction of the national identity in which writers and artists engage provide an image of the ideal citizen, which is spread throughout the country with the publishing of novels and the diffusion of drawings and prints, among other forms of art. By reading novels and looking at visual sources of information, people learn the role they are expected to have in the society, and it becomes their responsibility to embody it in their own selves. In the particular case of the woman, she is expected to engage independently in achieving the ideal, especially through their choices of dress and behavior, without having the patriarchal ruler imposing it directly on her; she is expected to engage in a process of self-surveillance and discipline,[13] where the “disciplinary power that inscribe[d] femininity in the female body is everywhere and … nowhere; the disciplinarian is everyone and yet no one in particular.”[14] In such a process, even though the dress choices of the woman appears to be produced independently and voluntarily, they are, in reality, the imposition of an idealized femininity in a patriarchal system of unequal relations of power.

Historia de Colombia


[1] Joanne Entwistle, The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 77.

[2] See Roland Barthes, Mythologies (London: Paladin, 1973); Roland Barthes, The Fashion System, trans. Matthew Ward and Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Roland Barthes, The Language of Fashion, trans. Andy Stafford, eds. Andy Stafford and Michael Carter (New York; London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[3] Ferdinand de Saussure, A Course in General Linguistics (London: Peter Owen, 1960).

[4] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1995 [1949]).

[5] Daniel Roche, The culture of clothing: Dress and fashion in the ‘ancien régime’, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999 [1989]).

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Aileen Ribeiro, “Re-Fashioning Art: Some Visual Approaches to the Study of the History of Dress,” Fashion Theory 2 (1998): 323.

[8] Anne M. Buck, “Clothes in Fact and Fiction: 1825–1865,” Costume 17 (1983): 89-104.

[9] Susan Hiner, Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France (Philadelphia; Oxford: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 20.

[10] Ibid., 36.

[11] Regina A. Root, ed. The Latin American Fashion Reader (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2005).

[12] Mariselle Meléndez, “Visualizing Difference: The Rhetoric of Clothing in Colonial Spanish America,” The Latin American Fashion Reader, ed. Regina A. Root (Oxford; New York: Berg, 2005), 17-30.

[13] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin, 1977).

[14] Sandra Lee Bartky, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (London; New York: Routledge, 1990), 63-82.