As Spain expanded its empire in the late 1700s, it established institutions in Alta California. Four presidios acted as administrative centers to oversee missions, pueblos, and ranchos reales, or royal ranches. The Presidio de San Francisco was established as a response to the perceived threat of Russian and British invasion. It was New Spain’s northernmost outpost, and was relatively isolated. Supply ships were infrequent, arriving about once a year. However, before the San Francisco Presidio was established, the San Francisco peninsula was home to 10,000-20,000 indigenous people who spanned 55 tribes and spoke five languages.
On August 21st, 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza arrived at the Presidio de San Francisco with 191 settlers. They had traveled from Tubac, Arizona, and consisted of 30 soldados de cuero, or leather jacket soldiers, and their families. They were poor, desperate for better opportunities, and belonged to the lower caste of the sistema de castas, or race-based caste system. The settlers were of Spanish, Mexican, and African descent. As with most colonial subjects, their social position was visually expressed through sumptuary laws, or the clothing they were allowed to wear.
Sumptuary laws were the result of Spanish Bourbon elites’ fears that race would no longer be an important factor in their social hierarchies. Their purpose was to separate Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans by race. The laws initially targeted people of African heritage, who were forbidden from wearing luxury items such as silk, gold, silver, pearls, or precious stones. Penalties for those who broke dress codes included item confiscation, corporal punishment, and public humiliation. Eventually, the laws shifted to target indigenous peoples in North and South America, and they became the lowest-ranking members of the Spanish Bourbon social hierarchy. Although skin color and ancestry were significant, clothing was the most important factor in determining one’s place in the sistema de castas. Social hierarchies were expressed through sumptuary laws and cuadros de castas, or casta paintings, but some people were able to obtain items outside of their casta and move up or down the social ladder.
Typical Bourbon dress was tight, and revealed the body rather than concealed it. Women wore bodices that showed the tops of their bosoms and wide skirts, while men wore knee breeches and waistcoats. Despite similar styles of dress, small details distinguished castas from one another. Elites with European blood wore closely-spaced lines, filigreed and jeweled buttons, and gold or silver buckles. Higher castas wore fewer and plainer buttons and buckles made of brass or tin. Lower castas fastened their clothes with laces and ties, and did not wear buttons or buckles. Indigenous people wore huipiles, or multi-layered, flowing garments, and rebozos, or headscarves. In contrast to Bourbon dress, indigenous clothing was flowing and concealed the body.
At the Presidio de San Francisco, clothing was issued to the settlers and their families by the Spanish government. Male soldiers’ clothing was ready-made, but most women and children’s clothing had to be assembled. Cloth may have been made at a nearby rancho del rey.
Male soldiers were subject to a separate hierarchical system based on their military ranking, which was visually expressed through details on their uniforms such as textile color and quality, and the type of buttons, buckles, and ornamentation. Because of San Francisco’s moist environment and microclimates, no clothing has been recovered at the Presidio from the Spanish occupation era. However, five buttons, several dozen beads, and a religious ornament have been found. The buttons most likely belonged to soldiers, and the beads and religious ornament may have been worn during religious ceremonies. The relatively small number of durable textile-related artifacts and their material makeup indicate that people who resided at the Presidio belonged to lower castas.
Clothing was a powerful social leveler at the Presidio de San Francisco between 1776 and 1821. Archaeological and historical evidence indicate that settlers eventually rejected the sistema de casta and formed a new collective ethnic identity known as the Californios. Individuals’ clothing choices and non-choices situated the settlers within the Spanish empire, and gave them the agency to construct their own identities. For instance, Juan Bautista de Anza issued silk skirts to all women, even those of African descent. At the time, African women could not wear or own silk, so Bautista’s decision to provide them with silk shirts indicated that race-based social hierarchies were shifting, and foreshadowed the formation of the Californios. Settlers also refused to wear huipiles because they did not want to be associated with indigenous people who had lower social standing than them.
John Comaroff (1996), “The Empire’s Old Clothes: Fashioning the Colonial Subject,” In D. Howe’s, ed, Cross-Cultural Consumption. London: Routledge, p. 19-38.
Barbara Voss (2008), “The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis: Race and Sexuality in Colonial San Francisco.” Berkley: University of California Press.