Fierce fashion from 19th century Puerto Rico

By Tashima Thomas

We doubt leg-of-mutton sleeves will make an appearance on runways during Fashion Week, but there's one thing that never goes out of style: attitude. Junior fellow Tashima Thomas shares entrancingly fierce fashion from the museum's Teodoro Vidal Collection.

"Fierce" may be an overused word these days, but I think it's appropriate here. I am inspired by this photograph from the Vidal Collection. I found it very interesting that the subject is generally attired in the current fashion of the 1890s given Puerto Rico's state of social and political unrest at the time combined with the seeming lack of access to fashion media by today's standards.

From the Teodoro Vidal Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
From the Teodoro Vidal Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

The original image appeared in the 1899, 2-volume history, Our Islands and Their People as Seen with Camera and Pencil.  One year prior to the publication of this large text in 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish American War. The black and white photograph features a young woman of African descent in Puerto Ricosometime around the end of the 19th century. She is standing in front of a weathered building covered with theater advertisements. A street scene unfolds to the right. Locals wander and wonder about the photographic scene or moment taking place. A young barefoot boy stares curiously at the model. The subject's body stands squared to the photographer, her arms hang to her side and face in profile.

The caption beneath the photograph reads, "A Colored Belle of Puerto Rico: The mixture of African with Spanish blood is not found in all of the people of this island. The higher classes of white people hold themselves as strictly in their own society as in any other country. This attractive colored girl is of the higher type of that race." The caption for this photograph is a reminder of the struggle to contextualize images of people of color by colonial spectators. For example, the reference to the young woman as a "type" was a popular early 19th-century term used by early anthropologists for people of color as pseudo-scientific specimens.

While conducting research on this photograph I was excited to discover thea ctual street location is the corner of Calle Cristo and Calle San Sebastián in San Juan. I also located a scholar who amazingly lived just a few doors down from where this photograph was taken!  Miriam Jiménez Román, co-editor of The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, told  me, "I lived just doors away from this spot, on Cristo, in the mid-1970s and my parents' home town is called San Sebastián. But, beyond my sentimental attachment to the photo there is what she represents: not "simply" a Puerto Rican, but [a] CARIBBEAN woman. I suspect she is from Martinique or Guadeloupe or at least influenced by the French islands in her choice of headwear, the madras headscarf, a style that is still part of their traditional dress."  

The French islands of the Caribbean were famous for their elaborate madras headscarves which were inspired by madrassi rumals worn by Indian indentured servants.  Madrassi rumal literally means "kerchief from Madras" which refers to the city of Madras in India where the fabric originated. These international style connections were carried through networks of global exchange such commercial business, printed magazines, illustrated newspapers, popular culture, immigrant labor, and the exploitation of people of African and Indian decent during colonialism. For example, the subject's style of dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves, petticoat with ruffled hem, narrow paneled apron, and Indian inspired madras headscarf is a testimony to her improvisational panache, as well as, the rich mix of cultural influences in the Caribbean.  

From the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana – Ladies Clothing, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian
From the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana – Ladies Clothing, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian

I wanted to investigate fashion trends during La Belle Époque (1895-1914) and discovered in the Ladies Clothing section of the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana in the museum's Archives Center. Both models in the Fashion Plate sport the same stiffened leg-of-mutton sleeves that swell to exaggerated proportions, and are balanced out by a flared skirt from the narrowed waist.

The model in the Vidal photograph has consciously combined the most current style of dress with the adornment of Caribbean influences referencing Indian and African origins. Through a brief study of her self-fashioning we can learn so many things about the complexities of social exchanges, global economies, ethnicity, literature, and history. From the artistry of her stance to her multicultural couturethe subject in the photograph is a nineteenth century fierce fashionista.      

Tashima Thomas is the Goldman Sachs Multicultural Afrolatino Junior Fellow at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. She is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.