The Unusual and Ravishing: Beauty Marks, Cochineal, and Prints Galore
by Daniel Ymbong, Gallery Assistant, Blanton Museum of Art
As a Gallery Assistant at the Blanton Museum of Art, I couldn’t wait for the wonderfully unique and ravishingly beautiful Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America to open. I hold a MAIS degree with a research focus on Spanish Viceregal 18th-century portraiture and dress, and I have a background in fashion design and marketing—so of course this exhibition highly resonated with me! As I worked in the galleries every week, I came to notice three recurring details in the exhibition: beauty marks in many of the portraits; the use of a deep red color in clothing and décor; and fabrics that featured extravagant prints. I took a deep dive to learn more—and to share the fascinating results with you.
A Thing of Beauty
In Latin American territories under 18th-century Spanish rule, status seekers had been crazy for French fashion since the late 1600s, and owned the entire look: the sack-back gown (also called robe a la française or international style), the jewelry, the hair, and most importantly the famous beauty marks known as chiqueadores, lunas (moons, as in lunar marks) or peccas. Using circle, star, or crescent moon shapes, women adorned their faces with a single pecca or multiple ones (see Brooklyn Museum’s Doña María de la Luz Padilla y Gómez de Cervantes below).
Scholars suggest that these marks were used for medical purposes, to hide skin blemishes caused by Ceruse (white lead make-up). Sometimes the beauty marks were embedded in natural oils, believed to cure headaches, which explains their placement on the temple. Other scholars suggest the use of peccas was simply a fashion statement for women in the Spanish Americas.
Cochineal: Red and Rich
One of the weirdest and coolest things about the carmine red so prevalent in Painted Cloth is that it is extracted from the cochineal insect, which is indigenous to the Americas. Red has been a beloved and a preferred color for fashion and the visual/decorative arts since centuries ago. It holds religious associations with blood in both Mayan and Aztec cultures, and the Sacred Mountain mother earth goddess of the Inca, Pachamama.
The Inca also adorned and incorporated red in their traditional uncu (tunic), and royals used red tassels on their Mascapaicha (Incan imperial crown). During Spanish rule, international trade in Asia also influenced the love and use of red. You’ll see the color everywhere through the galleries, whether it’s full-on ensembles for ruling society elites or religious figures like Nuestra Señora de Belén con un donante. Sometimes the red was utilized as fashion accents in men’s breeches, socks, a shoe, or a neckerchief. Or it might be in other details: a flower, pillow, curtain, floating coat of arms, or decorative flourish on a frame. For more on cochineal red, tune in to a recorded lecture inspired by Dr. Elena Phipps at the YouTube channel of my former workplace: the UTRGV Center for Latin American Arts. Also, check out her publication Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color.
Last but not least, let’s discuss the delightful patterns of Painted Cloth, which came from many influences. Pre-Spanish rule, traditional Incan dress was already highly rich and stylized with geometric prints. During the Spanish colonial period, Andean artisans mimicked the fancy patterns of brocade using a technique called brocateado with gold leaf in sculptures and paintings. What’s more, the Spanish colonies’ trade activity meant criollos (those of Spanish descent living in the Americas) had first dibs on silks, brocades, ivories, lacquer, fine gems, and plumes. The luxury goods landed in Acapulco, Mexico, via the Manila Galleon from the Philippines, and then set sail for Cadiz, Spain. Because of this, criollo fashion was highly exuberant, conspicuous, and worldly, often incorporating Asian motifs. Some prominent examples are chrysanthemums, canonical hats, pagoda like roofs, and vibrant reds like in this example from the Denver Art Museum.
Women and men were equally extravagant. The global exchange of ideas, goods, and people influenced fashion which resulted in out-of-the-ordinary mixed-matched prints, colors, and accessories. Both the criollo and Indigenous elite showcased obvious and not-so-obvious iconographies that were and still are unique to the Americas. Rosa de Salazar’s crown has three elongated yellow flowers that can be identified as Cantua buxifolia (national flower of Peru) and Sebastiana’s portrait presents an embroidered huipil (loose fitted layer dress of the Cacique) decorated with European-style ribbons, updo hair, diamonds, pearls, and emeralds.
But Make It Fashion
Fashion trends come in cycles, as history repeats itself, with some trends becoming iconic images and homages. Beauty marks are a prime example of this, exemplified by Marilyn Monroe, Edie Sedgwick, Madonna’s iconic 1990 MTV performance of Vogue, Lady Gaga, the make-up artistry of Pat McGrath, and the British Romantics (John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, and Alexander McQueen). I can’t help but think of my mom, who had a beauty mark. and was the daughter of a mestizo (mixed-race) hacienda (estate) owner and his humble personal yaya (help), my lola (grandma). Not long ago, I commissioned a portrait for her and my dad’s silver anniversary!
Carmine red is still beloved and famously found throughout the fashion world—in the work of Valentino Garavani, the red soles of Christian Louboutin shoes, the stripe of Gucci, the lining of a Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene, and even that epicenter of chic, Hollywood’s red carpet.
And of course, those gorgeous patterns persist. While the European-born fashionistas of the 1700s may have snubbed the colorful and extravagant fashion of the criollos, the style endures. Witness Jeremy Scott’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection for Moschino, which featured bright mixed-matched damask prints that recreated 18th-century silhouettes in Milan, Italy. Criollos were the OG fashion stars!
Painted Cloth explores deeper themes of resilience and beauty, the interwoven dynamic complexities of identity, and a form of collective inner healing in understanding how things were, why are things the way they are, and how things should, can and will be. Weird and wonderful.
Painted Cloth: Fashion & Ritual in Colonial Latin America is on view through January 8, 2023. Learn more about the show, purchase the catalogue, and more, via the exhibition page.