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“People of Fashion Dress Ostentatiously”: Unpacking Luxury in Eighteenth-Century Spanish America

Bodily adornment was an important site for the construction and negotiation of identities in the early modern Spanish world. It became particularly important in the eighteenth century, as the Spanish Empire saw tremendous political, social, and economic changes, some pointing to the seemingly inevitable fall of the empire. At the same time, the increasing availability of luxury products generated increased levels of anxiety with regards to social and racial/ethnic mixing in the Spanish colonies. Undertaking a comparative study of the adoption and adaptations of European fashions, their fusion with local indigenous elements of dress, and their visual representations, this paper explores the nature of luxury in the Viceroyalty of New Granada. By combining the visual analysis of portraits and pictures of types with the material study of extant garments and textiles, as well as archival research into inventories, wills, dowries, commercial documents, colonial chronicles, and travelers’ accounts, this paper examines the production, consumption, and circulation of luxury fashion and art in the Viceroyalty. Focusing on the principal cities of Quito and Santa Fe (present-day Bogota), this paper studies the influence of contemporary discourses about appearances in the creation of works of art as a means for social differentiation. Drawing on both European and indigenous ideas about luxury, this paper uncovers what constituted luxury in fashion and how it circulated in colonial Spanish America. The varied meanings of luxury were strongly dependent on the local context. In fashion, luxury conferred power to its wearer: it converted the inhabitants of the colonies into visually powerful figures, the self-proclaimed achievers of the success of the empire and the everlasting performers of fashion, whose style we continue to marvel at.

*This paper was presented in English at the ICOM-Costume Annual Meeting in August, 2021.