The kaleidoscope of fashion

The Story of the Exhibit: Manila Shawl

The Manila shawl, collection of Alexandre Vassiliev. Middle of the 20th century

Photo: archive of Fashion Museum

How much can just one exhibit in a Fashion Museum, for example a silk shawl, tell us, even if it is so beautifully and luxuriously crafted. Clothes and their accessories are not only a testimony to everyday life and an understanding of the beauty of a certain period of time but also an insight into the interaction between the economy and culture in different countries. Just as importantly, it also reflects the development of trade routes. The Manila shawl is a typical example; these shawls signify the high quality of ancient Chinese silk fabrics and embroideries and also reflects the former domination of the Spanish on the seas and oceans while also explaining the interplay between different vivid cultures and their manifestations in fashion.

What is the Manila Shawl?

The Manila shawl is a traditional woman’s accessory from Spain and Latin America. The shawl is square, made of silk and richly embroidered with silk yarns and decorated with long fringes; it covers the shoulders when folded in half. It is also used as a flag on balconies during various festivals. Manila shawls have also become an essential part of the flamenco dance costume. They were also used inside houses, and often placed over pianos – so often that were sometimes known as piano shawls.

View of Manila, ca. 1665

A vivid testimony to the fashion of this Spanish shawl can be found in the European portraits of the 19th century, as well as in photographs from the first half of the 20th century. However, the origins of Manila shawls can be traced back to much older times. It is probable that the Manila shawl was first worn in its original form as early as the 17th century. It became particularly popular in the 18th and the early 19th century in Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, and later throughout the rest of Europe.

Rosario Guerrero, famous Spanish dancer in Paris, ca. 1910

Although the name refers to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, the shawl is mostly associated with Spain. Historically, it was originally made in Canton, China, and then came to Mexico and Spain from the port of Manila. The demand for Manila shawls grew and many Cantonese factories increased production. In the meantime, some regions in Spain began embroidering them. However, a large proportion of goods, including Manila shawls, were still being manufactured in China for the export market only.

Why does the name of the shawl include the word Manila?

To answer this question, let's go on a small historic trip...

Spain began to take control of the Philippines in 1565; in 1571 the Port of Manila was established. Soon it became one of the final destinations for the Manila–Acapulco Galleon trade route which existed for almost three centuries. The Manila galleons brought a vast amount of Asian goods to Mexico and onwards to Europe, many of which were made in Canton, China.

The reason for this complicated long-haul route can be explained by the fact that the Philippines, including the significant port of Manila, was under the rule of the vice-royalty of New Spain – a colonial territory of the Spanish Empire in the New World – and was ruled by the Viceroy of New Spain from Mexico City, the capital. Manila's galleons sailed once or twice a year, carrying silk, fabrics and finished garments such as richly embroidered vestments for Catholic priests, porcelain, precious stones and ivory, as well as spices in one direction – to Mexico – and silver from Mexico and Peru in the opposite direction.

Manila–Accapulco–Seville galleon trade

The cargo holds of these ships were so full of Chinese goods that they were often called Nao de la China or Chinese vessels. The voyage was very long so the galleons were built to be as large as possible so that such a dangerous and lengthy voyage from Manila to Acapulco would pay off for those who chartered the voyage. The dockers of Manila were especially skilled in using every millimetre of space in the ship to hold cargo, while skilled employers took care of any expensive item to ensure it was well packed to withstand a long journey intact. The profit margin following the delivery of the cargo to Acapulco ranged from 100 to 300%, but if ships sank or were taken by pirates, this caused a fall in the economies of the Spanish colonies for a whole year – or until the safe arrival of the next ship!

Alonso Sánchez Coello, «View of Seville and its port», 16th century

Some of the ship's cargoes remained in Mexico; part of it was delivered to Peru while another portion was transferred inland to Veracruz to be taken later to Seville in Spain and afterwards to Cadiz. A Royal Philippine Company was established in 1785. It was under the direct control of Spain and so could trade directly with it without going through Mexico. This became especially important at the beginning of the 19th century, when the war for the independence of Mexico began between Mexico and Spain. Mexico achieved its goal in 1821. This was the time when the Manila shawl made of Chinese silk began to become really popular, when the goods were exported directly from Manila straight to Seville.

Chinese Silk

Four of the most important domesticated silk moths

Photo: Meyers Konversations-Lexikon (1885–1892)

Ancient China was the first civilization that began to use fine, bright threads – work of the silkworms. The great skills of weaving and embroidering were developed over centuries. These skills enabled China to maintain the status and great power of the silk trade even when silkworms began to be cultivated in other countries. The cultivation originated in Byzantium and then later in Europe, for example in Al-Andalus governed by Arabs.

Although China made some of the finest silk fabrics and embroidery, the products that came to Mexico were initially poor in quality. When Enriques, the Viceroy, received the first cargo galleon, he maintained that “I think all this business is a wasted effort, and the commerce is damaging rather than profitable, because all they bring are some miserable silks, mostly with a bad weave, and some false brocades.”

However, Chinese traders quickly realised that buyers in America and Spain, although demanding, were willing to pay a high price for the best quality and they also paid in silver. As a result of the combination of improved quality and the fall in prices, silk fabrics from Manila galleons began to compete with work of craftsmen from Andalusia at the end of the 16th century. Consequently, attempts were made to restrict imports of Chinese fabrics. This succeeded for a short time at the beginning of the 18th century but Manila's influential dealers were successful in abolishing the ban.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, «Portrait of Madame Panckoucke wearing Kashmir shawl», 1811

The Evolution of the Shawl

Shawls and scarves became popular in European fashion at the end of the 18th century, when fine, light-coloured Empire style muslin costumes were complemented by shawls from Kashmir. When Napoleon brought Josephine a long, warm, yet very fine scarf from his Egyptian campaign, scarves soon became fashionable. They were woven from fine wool and were used to warm the shoulders of those women who at that time wore costumes inspired by ancient culture, although the climate in many European countries was totally unsuitable for this style of clothing. It was much colder there than in the Mediterranean. Long scarves were replaced by square-shaped and half-folded scarves around 1820; this was because fashion had changed; the silhouette of romanticism with a shallow shoulder strap, thick skirts and an accented waist replaced the Empire style silhouette. The popularity of the Manila shawl was also increasing at this time.

John Singer Sargent, «Spanish Dancer», 1879–82. A preparatory oil study for the main figure in «El Jaleo»

The oldest Manila shawls were mainly embroidered with the most China-specific symbolic motifs: dragons, lotuses, bamboo, images of people dressed in kimonos, pagodas, birds and flowers – pheasants, cranes, butterflies, plum or peach flowers, camellias, chrysanthemum and peonies. Gradually Spanish motifs replaced Chinese motifs: roses, carnations, sunflowers, lilies and rosemary started to appear in the embroidery. Pagodas, dragons and toads – a Chinese symbol of wealth but which had totally different associations in Europe – disappeared. The range of colours became brighter, the composition of embroidery became denser; fringes also started to become a supplement to the shawl. Over time, fringes became longer and longer and included elements of macrame. Thanks to the charming movement of the fringes during the dance, the Manila shawl also became an important attribute of Flamenco dancers.

Nowadays, the most popular Manila shawls are based on the models of the first quarter of the 19th century; however the stylistic diversity is enormous. Nonetheless, the shawls which resemble the original Manila shawls are scarves called chinesco or “Chinese”; they are embroidered with abundant Chinese motifs. However, the scarves in the style of cigar rollers or cigarreras, which can be recognised by the embroidery of large and bright roses or camellias, can reveal most about the winding historical route of the popularity of Manila shawls.

Henri Matisse, «Manila shawl», 1911

The motif of Carmen

Various researchers have explained the evolution of the Manila shawl in different ways. Although historians of fashion and culture cannot deny the Chinese origin of the Manila shawl, they have also stressed the influence and the great importance of the cultural heritage of the Mexicans, the Andalusian Moors and the Gypsies. The most logical explanation is that the Manila shawl has been historically formed and developed into its current style by merging and interacting with all of these different cultures.

One of the versions of the origins of the Manila shawl is that cigar rollers or cigarreras played an important role in promoting the Manila shawl. They used pieces of silk to decorate their costumes, particularly the fabric that was rejected or was of poor quality. This fabric was used to wrap the tobacco parcels which were sent to Spain. So cigarreras made bright and exotic embroidered scarves from fabric. Soon these shawls became an integral part of the dress of cigarreras.

Ignacio Zuloaga y Zabaleta, «Lolita reclining in a blue shawl», 1912

Spain was the first European country to start importing tobacco. The tobacco came to Seville, to the famous Casa de Contratación or House of Trade. Tobacco processing plants began to be developed in Seville in the 16th century and the vast Royal Tobacco Factory (Real Fábrica de Tabacos) was built at the gates of the city in the 18th century. Part of the factory was reserved for rolling cigars. Long after the manufacture of cigars elsewhere in Spain (and in Cuba) had become women's work, the workforce in Seville remained entirely male. Women started to work as cigar rollers in 1813. There were at least 6,000 women working as cigar rollers in the factory of Seville in the 1890’s. Cigars were also produced in Cadiz, La Coruña, Madrid and Alicante. Cigarreras formed their own community which had its own subculture that was characterised by a particular style of dress. The essence of the style was shawls embroidered with vivid flowers.

Carmen. Journal Amusant, 1875

The world’s most famous cigarrera is undoubtedly Carmen from the novel by Prosper Mérimée and the opera of Georges Bizet. This hot-blooded gypsy reflected the close relationship between the Manila shawl and the Spanish Roma or Gypsy culture. This culture has been strongly influenced by flamenco – the Andalusian-style music and dance. The current style has existed in this form since the 18th century. Like the Manila shawl, flamenco dance has been inspired by the influences of different cultures – Spanish, Moorish, Gypsy, Jewish – all these cultures historically met at the same time and in the same place – Andalusia, Spain. You see what an exciting story can be told by a single and beautiful item from a lady's wardrobe – an item which has now become an exhibit in the museum!

Cigarreras of the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville, 1920s

China in Riga

The reason we went into detail regarding the sparkling history of this particular exhibit of our museum – the Manila shawl – was the inspiration we gained from working on the exhibition entitled “The Secrets of the East. Western Fashion and China”. The magnificent Manila shawls from the collection of Alexandre Vassiliev exhibited in the Fashion Museum reveal an exciting story regarding a history that is reminiscent of sophisticated embroidery – the cords of different cultures entwined to create something surprisingly beautiful yet difficult to describe fully. Incidentally, nowadays Manila shawls continue to bridge economic relationships between countries – the beautifully embroidered shawls sold in Spain are mostly made in China! Representatives of the Spanish company selling Manila shawls for many decades, sadly admit, “It is more expensive to embroider shawls by machine in Spain than to have them hand-embroidered in China; it's no longer worth embroidering them here in Spain...” However, Manila shawls still remain very popular and many Spanish women are still proud of their shawls inherited from their grandmothers – so the never-ending story continues!