Fashion is psychology, once you get past the Instagram gloss and hollow reputation of it all. It deserves respect as the most personal of design fields, and the most operative visual expression of an individual’s identity. In Canvas & Silk: Historic Fashion from Madrid’s Museo del Traje, the current exhibition at SMU’s Meadows Museum, fashion is handed the responsibility of describing a nation’s history in a vivid, fascinating way.
Canvas & Silk is not, in a strict sense, a touring museum exhibition. The meat of the show is the Meadows Museum’s collection — one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside of Spain — and it demands the thoughtful attention you might reserve for a documentary film or a night of PBS. The Museo del Traje’s fashion objects bring the Meadows’ wall pieces to life and feature a diverse blend of high and working class, historical and modern, and traditional Spanish and haute Parisian. France looms over this exhibition’s individual pieces and paintings; a tale of the two nations is powerfully told, distinctively flavored by popular fashions of select historical eras, yet extremely accessible to contemporary thinkers of or visiting Dallas. This fashion exhibition showcases its hometown collection with uncommon care and ability.
Delicate artifacts of feminine beauty-making are remarkably provocative, redolent of the restrictive, doll-like expectations of women in other historical eras. But the objects themselves are nonetheless wonderfully pleasing and beautiful: gold-plated hair combs made of horn; lace, bustle, ribbons hanging from ribbons, and a jacket neck rising so high it must have forbidden any disobedience of perfect posture. Children’s garments match their mothers’ (is this still done?). Feathers and tassels abound, solely decorative; umbrellas too delicate to hold back sun or rain. And yet! Advances in textiles, such as the eyelet, made women more comfortable than ever before, as did more breathable and lighter fabrics that allowed for greater movement.
Visiting the rich center rooms, it is possible to feel transported — if not to another century, then at least to Madrid. But whispering beneath the surface is Paris, staining Spain’s proud cultural heritage into soft focus until its emblems of tradition trickle down to the middle class. That’s part of what makes this show much more than spectacle; it’s a history of economics, politics, and power as much as it is a history of fashion.
Francisco Bayeu y Subías’ Maria Teresa del Castillo, an oil painting in the Meadows Collection, offers a charming bridge to the present. Here is a portrait of a little kid pretending to be a grown up, which may or may not have been her decision. We have all, at one point, been that child (or that parent). This 18th century version samples French fashions to signify the girl’s wealthy parentage: in one hand, she holds a pug (a breed of dog sometimes associated with royalty), and in the other, she clasps a pastry. Dogs and donuts — either this portrait is me in a former life, or the two objects are eternal symbols in marking a happy childhood.
Although intricate handheld fans are still made in Spain today, they once were used as instruments of silent flirtation. As with any honest exhibition about fashion, sex is in the room somewhere — look for the corner. Antonio Maria Esquivel’s Woman Removing Her Garter is subversive and sexy as hell, complete with ripe, fleshy innocence. It reminds me of Daniel Day Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer’s glove in The Age of Innocence. But Esquivel’s maiden looks right back at you, enjoying the gaze, inviting the leer. No one today needs garters to hold up stockings, but they’re still potent weapons of the tease.
For fans of men’s couture, the masculine pieces accentuate and oblige the wearer’s peacockery beyond the functional, and had me wondering if a broke but bold seamstress could have feigned wealth with talented craftsmanship and decent materials. That’s a movie I’d like to see. Men’s costumes were no less delicate or complex than the ladies’ pieces, and if one happened to be a bullfighter, bring on the pastels. My favorite painting in Canvas & Silk is Favorites of the Court by Antonio Casanova y Estorach. While the bullfighters are unmistakably Spanish, and the royals to whom they are presented are also unmistakably Spanish, the setting is unmistakably French — Château de Fontainebleau, specifically. That’s how powerful Paris-envy can be. If this scene ever took place, it was not in the room the artist painted.
In one sweet section, you might recognize your own predilection for illustrating life’s daily dullness in the framed letters of The Stewart Album, a collection of tiny drawings done to entertain friends. This is the work of a skilled and careful hand: the American collector William H. Stewart, who in the latter part of the 19th century, when based in Paris, wrote to faraway friends. Calling to mind a zine, this treat could be easy to overlook among the dazzling mannequins in Canvas & Silk. But that’s the challenge, and the reward, of the whole exhibition — welcoming the small.
Today, our collective fashion aesthetic is still inspired by Paris, sure, but it’s also just as influenced by Japan and the United States. Let us rejoice that 20th century Spain gave us Cristobal Balenciaga and Manolo Blahnik. In the meantime, enjoy this story which is beautifully told and thrilled by your attention: a nation searching for assertion beyond the shadow of a gleaming, imperious sibling.
Canvas & Silk: Historic Fashion from Madrid’s Museo del Traje is on view through January 9, 2022 at the Meadows Museum.