“Besides, the consumption of all sorts of silk fabrics should be seen in Mexico as the main point of its commerce; clergy men, gentlemen, merchants, bourgeois, artisans, craftsmen and even Africans and mulatto, they all dress in silk for most part of the year. Therefore Spain, together with France, should focus firmly on this trade in order to rectify the deterioration in the situation due to the introduction of silk from China to Mexico.” (Translated from Jean de Monségur, 1709, chap. XXXVII)
Court dresses from the Eighteenth-century were made with extremely luxurious materials, and possessed three essential parts: a train, a rigid bodice, and a skirt (commonly called petticoat) that had to be used with a panier underneath. This type of dresses is usually defined by its function because court dress was worn in the presence of the royal couple. In the case of the New Spain, it is likely that it was used in front of the viceroys. However, more research is needed because formal dress could also be seen in important city celebrations, weddings, taking of vows, etc.
The elaborate masterpiece made of green silk velvet, which belongs to the collection of the National Museum of History in Mexico, is probably one of the few surviving examples that show taste in the New Spain. Elements such as the large stomacher placed on the front of the bodice, the profusion in the use of sequins, metallic foils and glass-pastes, as well as the provenance of the dress, have led specialists to believe that the mantua was specifically made for a New-Hispanic lady, although the materials could have come from Europe or China.
Symbolism played an important role during the Age of Enlightenment. The different parts of the gown support this idea through the depiction of floral motifs, which are symmetrically arranged. One interesting aspect, which is placed along the train as a form of narrative speech, is the consecutive representation of the growth of a wild rose, created through embroidery.
Scientific analysis of the materials showed that this dress contains silk, gold, silver, potassium-based glass and indigo. However, one must remember that objects that survive until today are not identical to their moment of creation. Time, context and use have taken their toll and caused some physical and chemical transformations. The analysis also proved that this dress presents multiple alterations, therefore it is important to recognize and differentiate the original features against the modifications and the effects of degradation.
See also unpublished thesis by the author: Laura G. García-Vedrenne (2016): “El reconocimiento tecnológico y material como fundamento para la conservación de un vestido de alta corte del siglo XVIII, perteneciente al acervo del MNH”.
Acknowledgements: National Museum of History in Mexico (MNH) and Photographer Omar Dumaine, as well as Martha Inés Sandoval Villegas and Diego Iván Quintero Balbás.