There is no doubt that the painting, universally known as “Las Meninas”, is the most famous work of Don Diego de Silva Velázquez (Seville, 1599-Madrid, 1660). This painting has been the subject of many studies but perhaps one aspect that has been overlooked by most scholars is the importance of the clothing, a protagonist in all the portraits that Velázquez painted.
In 1656 Velazquez painting “Las Meninas”. At this time, Spanish fashion is genuinely Spanish, unlike in the rest of Europe, which faithfully followed the fashions of the Court of Versailles, very different from the conceptual and aesthetic point of view to the Spanish one. In the painting, the Infanta Margarita is centre stage accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting, María Agustina Sarmiento and Isabel de Velasco as well as Maribárbola, a dwarf of German origin and Nicolasito Pertusato. The three ladies are luxuriously dressed, groomed and made up in the fashion of the court of the time in which the baroque “guardainfante” stands out.
The “guardainfante” was a scandalous garment, not only because of its size but also because of the attention it aroused among moralists, literati and legislators of the time, and, although in the opinion of the contemporaries it came from France, it so happens that contrary to what usually happened, it did not appear first in the court dress but its appeared outside the court circle. The French model, and let’s not forget that the first hollow of skirts that appears in history denominated “verdugado”, was soon modified and interpreted according to the aesthetic ideals of Spanish dress. From this the “guardainfante” emerged, made with wooden hoops, wire or iron joined together with ribbons or ropes and was completed in the upper part with wicker to emphasize the hips. The “guardainfante” was covered whit petticoats, sometimes padded with wool to round the hips and on the skirt the outer skirt called “basquiña”. Next to the “guardainfante”, the feminine silhouette was modeled with the stays, a garment armed with corset stays, whose purpose was to enhance the feminine attributes. This intention emerged from the ideals of beauty in the sixteenth century and gave birth to the so-called chest cardboard, the origin of the different corsets that have appeared in Western fashion throughout history.
In the middle distance, Velázquez, faithful to his craft appears, and with him are several palace employees, among them Doña Marcela de Ulloa, the palace owner, dressed in a black dress, called “monjil”, which widows and married women wore at that time. Men were dressed in court fashion, wearing the suit known internationally “in the Spanish style”. It was a consequence of the real pragmatics of 1623 dictated by Felipe IV that changed the Spanish way of dressing. The most notable features were the black colour and the rigid collar, formed by a cardboard support lined in black silk and the white collar called “Valona”. This collar forced them to keep the head erect and became a symbol of the gravity and arrogance of the Spaniards.
In this “biombo” (screen) produced in Mexico around 1700, representing the palace of the Viceroy in Mexico City, gentlemen are dressed the Spanish way and ladies wear the “guardainfante” as Mexican are depicted with their traditional clothes.
Spanish Fashion at the Courts of Early Modern Europe, 2 vol., ed. José Luis Colomer y Amalia Descalzo Lorenzo (Madrid: 2014)