Design and Culture in Spain II: Museo del Traje

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Karen Scanlon, a first year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, continues a short series of blog posts on hispanic material culture by examining Spanish dress, past and present, at Madrid’s Museo del Traje.

Entrance to Museo Del Traje, Madrid, Spain. Photograph by Karen Scanlon

As part of a recent study trip to Madrid, I made a visit to the city’s fashion museum. Although not as conveniently located within the centre as most of the other museums, this shouldn’t put anyone off from visiting, as a short underground journey from the city centre to Moncloa station will get you there.

The city’s clothing collection began with an exhibition called ‘Regional and Historical Costume’ in 1925, held in the Palace of the Library and National Museums of Madrid. By 1934, this exhibition had merged with the Museum of the Spanish People and was arranged by the government of the Second Republic in the hope of creating a display that would reflect different Spanish traditions. The museum was open on and off between 1940-44 and again between 1971 -73. From then, the collection went into storage until 1987 when it was moved to its current location and site of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art (MEAC) with a plan to reopen the collection to the public. Museo del Traje started as a project that would bring traditional, historical and contemporary fashions together as a site for reference and research.

Having never been to Spain before, my knowledge of Spanish dress was, I admit, very limited. Thoughts of flamenco dancers, boleros and other ideas of traditional dress were the only images that came to mind.  However, from the moment I entered the museum and began to look at the exhibits, I realized there was much more to Spanish dress than that. In fact, the museum’s permanent collection is arranged with an overview of the history of costume in Spain from as early as the 16th century right up to the 21st century. The purpose-built interior enjoys wide open spaces to move around comfortably and without the overuse of placards, displays appear to be less cluttered than in other museums. Although signage is limited, the use of interactive touch-screen terminals provides visitors with access to further information about a particular costume, designer, accessory, and so on. That said, although objects may appear better presented without labels, the terminals are a bit finicky and can be time-consuming to use.

Space has been well organized and items are chronologically arranged, including, for example, a section on the Neoclassicism style resulting from the French Revolution and its effects on dress in 18th century Europe as a whole, and a display showing a typical 19th century Spanish domestic interior. An in-depth view inside some garments is offered; a corset for example, is shown in an x-ray image, allowing a closer examination of its construction. Another display features a partly-cut garment to reveal how the bustle’s construction was used to define the desired 19th century silhouette. Each display is a feast for the eyes and each direction offers the viewer one beautiful arrangement of costume after another. As the museum guides the visitor through its historical chronology, there is also an offshoot from the main trail, which leads to a section on regional dress. At once I recognized these clothes as fitting my original impression of typical Spanish costume. This exhibit, covering the late 19th to early 20th century, features items of dress and accessories which represent historical ceremonial dress, typical work clothes indicating specialist trades, and dress used in festival or traditional dance (in fact, the latter styles can still be seen in Spanish dance performances today).

One example of dress that was particularly striking was from the region of Montehermoso, the north west province of Cáceres, Extremadura. The museum display shows a woman sitting in a chair with colourful, multi-layered underskirts, beautifully embroidered with motifs of birds, rosettes, carnations and other flowers. The woman also wears a particular gorra, a bonnet made from very colourful straw, adorned by ribbons, buttons and pompoms. The bonnet sits on top of a colourful kerchief, which is visible from a slight slit in the back of the bonnet. This flows downwards to cover the women to her shoulders. If worn traditionally, the bonnet would appear slightly tilted forward, a result of a type of regional hairstyle that has since been abandoned. The cuffs of her sleeves and her flat, ballet-style shoes are all richly embellished with embroidery. This elaborate use of embroidery also decorates the flamenco dancers’ manton de manila, the silk shawls and fans associated with Spanish culture and the typical matador’s costume.

Approaching the end of the permanent gallery there is a section covering haute couture, and most importantly, Spain’s own contributions, including the work of couturiers Mariano Fortuny and Cristobal Balenciaga,both enormously important to the trade in their own right. Fortuny, an accomplished designer who invented innovative processes for dying and pleating silk fabrics, is featured. Also highlighted is Cristobal Balenciaga, regarded as the most influential Spanish couturier of the 20th century. Balenciaga, from the Basque Country, used Spanish culture, art, and religious dress as inspirationfor many of his evening gown and coat designs, such as the colourful, extravagant robes of cardinals in the Catholic Church. Balenciaga’s creations suggest the grand sweeping movements of a flamenco dancer or matador. The use of sashes, tassels, embroidery, boleros, brocades and hats throughout his collections reinterpret traditional Spanish culture for 20th century European fashion tastes.  Moving on from haute couture are displays on the growth of Spanish ready-to-wear, marking the end of the museum’s historical journey.

Looking back, it appears to me that the art and craft of embroidery indigenous to Spanish culture is a key signature feature of Spanish dress. The preference for materials of rich colour also undoubtedly creates a vibrant museum display. After being treated to such fashion profusion, don’t expect any ordinary ‘exit through the gift shop’ at Museo del Traje. Visitors here are invited to leave in style via their very own catwalk. With loud music pumping in the background, a walk on the red carpet awaits, surrounded by bright lights and your very own (simulated) audience. What more could you ask of a fashion museum?

The catwalk front row: From left to right; Chaqueta y zapatos, Vivienne Westwood. 1985 – 1990; Vestido, Jean Paul Gaultier. ca. 1980; Capa, Roberto Capucci. ca. 1980. Photograph by Karen Scanlon.

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