Dress codes depicted in 18th-century art can reveal a great deal about race and identity – both then and now. Cath Pound delves into the surprising details hidden in Latin American “Casta” paintings.

The world is unfamiliar with the history of colonial Latin America, but a new exhibition at the Blanton Museum of Art aims to change that through the visual representation of clothing and textiles. The exhibition Painted Cloth: Fashion and Ritual in Colonial Latin America focuses on the 1700s, when Spain was tightening its grip on its territories in the face of growing French influence.

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The Casta paintings in the exhibition, which take their name from the casta system invented by the Spanish authorities to define a race hierarchy, are particularly eye-opening. In the 18th century, the genre emerged in what is now Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Peru. The paintings were created in series, with the occasional multi-image single panel, to depict the region’s ethnic diversity and the mixed races that resulted from their unions. They demonstrate the existence of a racially diverse and integrated population, the extent of which may surprise modern audiences, while also raising questions about contemporary attitudes toward race and racism.


“They address an issue that is still relevant today: cultural hybridity.” “With all the people moving around… we’re still struggling with how identity is formed,” curator Rosaria Inés Granados says. The 16th-century Spanish invasion of what is now Mexico and its surrounding communities had a devastating impact on the region’s social fabric. The invaders imposed their culture and social class indicators while also attempting to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Unions between indigenous women and Spanish men, some forced, some consensual, and the forced migration of enslaved black people from West Africa resulted in a multi-ethnic coexistence defined and controlled by the authorities through the casta system.

The invaders imposed their culture and their own indicators of social class


Paintings like Negra de Guinea The Criolla. Español. Producen. Mulatos, as well as Yndia Serrana. The Civilized. Produce mestiso, both created around 1770 by an unknown artist in Cristóbal Lozano’s circle, depict mixed-race couples and their offspring. The paintings are labelled almost anthropologically, with subjects defined by terms like mulatto and mestizo.

“We know that many of them were made for Natural History Museum cabinets. They were not designed to be used in a domestic setting “Granados explains.

The subjects of the paintings are dressed in the clothing that their position in the hierarchy allowed them to wear, a restriction intended to exert both social and economic control over the population. The enslaved black couple and child depicted in Negros Bozales de Guinea wear rough, simple garments. In contrast, the black woman in Negra de Guinea o Criolla with her Spanish husband. Español. Producen. Mulatos dresses like a member of the elite, indicating the higher status that marriage to a Spaniard grants her.

Unsurprisingly, many people find it difficult to look at images that were created to categorise and rank people based on their race. However, taking the time to understand how and why they were created, as well as how the ideal depicted so frequently differed from reality, reveals a much more nuanced picture of the society in which they were created.

“People shared the same urban space. “It’s critical to understand how colonial Latin America differed in this regard,” says Granados. “This combination of traditions was made possible by the fact that people lived together despite the regulations. It allowed for social mobility, which the crown needed to control.” The authorities’ desire for control can be interpreted as a sign of their anxiety, as well as a recognition that their ideal would never exist in the way they desired or intended. Controlling how people appear becomes increasingly important in the 17th century as demographics change, i.e. the population becomes more racially mixed. Controlling appearance is thus a way of signalling something central to Spanish colonial society, namely the ‘purity’ of blood. “The ‘purity’ of blood becomes associated with being Spanish,” explains Susan Deans-Smith, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Casta painting expert.

Exposing absurdity


The Spanish were so concerned about race mixing that they passed legislation prohibiting mixed-race marriages in 1776. “There are these flashpoints throughout the colonial period that help us understand when Spanish anxieties emerge,” Deans-Smith says.

The ideal is highlighted in the painting Gente Blanca o Quasi limpios de su origen, which translates as White People or Almost Pure of Origin. A white man dressed elegantly looks approvingly at his pale wife, dressed equally finely, while gesticulating at the enslaved black person standing before them, no doubt to emphasise their position at the polar ends of the hierarchy.

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