The mantón de Manila (Manila shawl) is one of the most symbolic elements of hispanic dress that, in recent history, has become an almost essential garment in museum collections of costume around the world. Traditionally made out of silk, Manila shawls are often embroidered with colorful floral motifs made out of silk threads and bordered with long, braided fringes.
In most cases, they worn around the shoulders, folded diagonally in half and covering the torso. Throughout history, they have also been used as flags, hung from balconies during civic and religious festivities, and as essential decorative elements in the aristocratic homes of the Spanish Empire: both as wall-coverings and piano decorations.
Like many other garments that have existed in the history of humankind, the mantón de Manila can testify to the social conceptions of beauty in a specific time and place. But it is also a reflection of the interaction between economics and culture in the Spanish World and the development of trade routes: the Manila shawl reveals the commercial domination of the Spaniards over the world’s oceans and the interplay of different aesthetic elements of the Asian, Spanish and Colonial American cultures.
The mantón de Manila receives the name of one of the main ports in Philippines during the era of the Spanish Empire – Manila – despite being considered an essentially Spanish garment. Yet its origins do not lie in this port-city. Originally, Manila shawls were manufactured in the south of China, where most of the silk production took place at the time. In 1565, when Philippines became a part of the Spanish Empire, new commercial routes were established between Asia and Europe, via America, and Manila became the main port of export, with galleons shipped to Acapulco (in New Spain), Peru and Portobelo, beginning in the last quarter of the 16th century. From the Spanish-American colonies, the mantones were shipped to Spain.
Manila shawls were typically designed with a variety of design motifs in the “Orientalist” taste. Initially, Chinese motifs were predominant: dragons, lotus flowers, bamboo leaves, characters wearing kimonos, and flowers, including camellias, chrysanthemums, and peonies. Slowly, shawl designs adjusted to the Spanish taste, with the appearance of roses, carnations, sunflowers, and lilies in the embroidered motifs. The range of colors also expanded, design compositions became heavier, and fringes became indispensable. Later, fringes grew longer and were made using macrame techniques. Adaptations of design motifs, catered to the different markets, also appeared: what appealed to the customers in New Spain was different from Peru and Spain.
By the 18th century, the mantón de Manila had become an essential piece in the wardrobe of elegant women throughout the Spanish Empire, although it was not until the 19th century that it became a quintessentially Spanish garment. Both in Spain and in Spanish America, Manila shawls became an element of traditional attire, while in Europe and North America they became fashionable as “Spanish shawls” – favored by style icons such as French Empress Eugenie. And after its heyday, the Manila shawl lost its popularity, and was relegated to lower-class dress, common among gypsies and flamenco dancers. However, it has not lost its importance in the history of Spanish dress.
Morales, Luis Gerardo (Ed.). Tornaviaje: la Nao de China y el barroco en México 1565-1815, exhibition catalogue, 5 February – 31 July 2016, Museo Internacional del Barroco, Puebla, Mexico; 19 August – 30 October 2016, Museo Franz Mayer, Mexico City, Mexico.
Nash, Elizabeth. “Death in the Afternoon.” Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History, 135-144.
“The Story of the Exhibit: Manila Shawl.” Modes Muzejs Riga: The kaleidoscope of fashion. Accessed 24 April 2018, http://www.fashionmuseumriga.lv/eng/kaleidoscope/manila/.