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September 2002

Interview with historian Isabel Cruz:
Clothes that talk

Motivated by the scarce information available in our historiography, historian and professor Isabel Cruz published in 1996 "The suit, transformations of a second skin". The book covers the time between half of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century. As a result of an investigation that is meticulous and original, the text gives a view of clothing beyond its use, elevating it to the category of an art form.

By Rosario Mena


—What motivated you to begin this study? Do you personally like clothes?
—All women like clothes. We may have more of a conscience about dressing than men. That is a cultural and historical phenomenon, though it hasn't been so at all times. But I entered this study through art. While I was investigating about culture and sculpture during Chile's Hispanic-Indian times, I found in some documents dresses, suits, all described with great detail. There were so many references that it was clear that aesthetic was then more present in suits than in paintings, not just for the quantity and importance, but also because of the price. During the 17th Century, a nice suit could cost you the same as a house close to Plaza Mayor (Madrid's main square). And so, I saw nobody had worked about this issue in Chile, with the exception of Fernando Marquez de la Plata during the 30s. So I decided to throw myself to the pool, thinking that if it was worth it I would keep on swimming. I studied essays about Fashion Psychology, by Humberto Eco, and then I went to classic works about Fashion History. I saw what an important topic it was, especially during the Baroque.

—Do you think dressing should be seen as part of our cultural heritage? What is your opinion about fashion museums?
—It has to be part of our cultural heritage. I think it is really interesting there are Fashion Museums. I don't believe in the division between major and minor Arts. This separation started during the Illustration, in the 18th Century. Previously, Art was not so much connected to creativity but to a job, a handcraft. Kant started with this Romantic idea of the artist as genius. It is an idea that still survives, so all that is handmade or useful stays on the background. Clearly, during the 20th Century Fashion as an Art form was vindicated. The Bauhaus architecture or great masters like Mies Van Der Roe re-value certain products like real Art works. A suit is an aesthetical production the same as a painting. In it you find a reflection about a way of being, of thinking a time, a society.

—Can we say we find a Chilean cultural heritage in dressing?
—We cannot pretend what's Chilean to be typical. Chile has always been a country inscribed in a larger Cosmo vision. Besides its geographical isolation, Chileans have a marginality complex. Everything that is done within the country we think is poor, always comparing ourselves with the outside. Chileans, especially those from the elite, are very focused on the outside. That is good when it allows you to be updated, but bad if it produces a low valorization of what's done here. We have always adapted from the outside. What has been bequeathed from the past as a testimony, even if it's not typically Chilean, must be maintained, because there is no Chilean culture or Chilean History away from the outside. There's exchange, not just imitations, but relations and adaptations. There are some very valuable elements.

—Which have been Chile's most important textile-fabrication centers?
—During the Colonial time it was forbidden for it to be textile industries. The King wanted to import all the products manufactured from Europe, sell them here and then take the raw materials back. At least, that was what the law said. But there were some textile works done at the South; at Valdivia, Chiloé, rugs from Chillán. Indians made their own clothing while the elites imported theirs. Sewers took ideas from foreign designs, making some adaptations. During the 19th Century there were no clothing factories but tailors who worked upon assignment. At the beginning of the 20th Century the first textile industries had a strong incentive, not just from the government but also because of the lack of resources after the First World War economic boycotts. The national industry was then strongly promoted.

—Do you think that, to some degree and even with the massive irruption of products and fashion, dressing is still a language for social differentiation?
—No, that was until the 60s. Not any more. It may be that the richest group has some differences about the quality of the knitting or the use of some pieces, but it's subtle. Designs, cuts, they are all the same. Dressing is no longer an element of segregation. For example, in Peru, the Indian population wears a completely different attire. That is not so in Chile. To the contrary, I believe that in here clothing has been a factor for social mobility and climb, because anybody can dress like the high-class.

—Is it possible to identify in other times subgroups differentiated by dressing, like now the gothics, rappers or hippies?
—During the Baroque, clothing was an indication of social hierarchy. In the 19th Century it slowly started the differences among groups: bohemians, bourgeois, etc. But it was very subtle.

—Do you agree that most Chileans are sober and not very bright when dressing?
—Sobriety is probably a characteristic of the Republican times. During the Colony, people dressed rigidly, very decorated, Baroque. And during the 18th Century dress became more local. Bourgeois fashion is one of sobriety, like the Chilean personality: self-critical, shy. In general, Chileans dress in a very functional way.

—Does this have anything to do with Catholicism and the moderation imposed by the Church?
—Right. The Church has always been worried about women clothing. Saint Anselmo, Saint Agustin, they all made remarks about feminine fashion. During the 17th and 18th Century, not just the Church, but also the jurors were worried about this. In general, the Church has more of a negative view about ornaments, "dressing lust", thinking it could distract men. So the Church used to rule dressing. Some of those rigid traditions lasted longer in America because of cultural reasons.

—We have heard our grandmothers making reference to "the lack of shoes" of somebody who's ignorant or not well educated. Where does this analogy come from?
—The shoe was a luxury during the 17th and 18th Centuries. Then, it became the privilege of a small group. During the middle of the 20th Century, there were still a lot of rural people who wore no shoes. The "ojota" was used; it came from the Indian sandals. So the use of shoes was for those who had been refined, it implied a social value.

El traje, transformaciones de una segunda piel (The suit, transformations of a second skin).

Author: Isabel Cruz

Publishers: Universidad Católica

Sold at: Centro de Extensión UC (Alameda and Portugal, Santiago).

 

 
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