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Photos and video: Manton de
Manila exhibition at Casa de America unless noted otherwise


There is an ongoing exhibition of the Manton de Manila in Casa de America that what in Spain is currently known as the fashionistas (that term is too close to fashionist to require translation) and history buffs would want to rush and view before the exquisite shawls are packed up and stored away.

Here’s the title of the exhibition which is almost as long as the transoceanic trip that brought  the Manton ultimately to Spain: “La ruta del mantón de Manila: la feliz unión entre Asia, Hispanoamérica y España (The Manila Shawl Route: the happy union between Asia, Latin America and Spain).” The exhibition is distributed in three rooms of the palace. (Yes, the Casa de America is a palace; rather, it once was — a family palace known as Palacio de Linares.) The first room showcases the boxes in which the shawls were painstakingly packed for shipping aboard medieval ocean liners, the Spanish galleons.

These boxes are works of art in themselves, to match and reflect their lovely contents. They are lacquered wooden boxes with drawings inside a circle in the center, in the traditional Chinese colors of red and black patterned in gold leaf. In the four corners of the boxes, there are flowers and insects. A popular motif is butterflies. The drawings in the center are a replica of those embroidered on the shawls: royal pavilions, flowers, butterflies, vases. . .

The shawls were wrapped in tissue paper and then kept in richly painted cardboard boxes inside the outer wooden boxes. These inner boxes are adorned with colorful drawings in gouache. The colors are rich, ranging from violets and blues to zinc white, red, black, yellow, or pink but orange and green predominate. In the center, there is always a circled painting, and in the corners flowers, butterflies or animals appear again.

The second room is the heart of the exhibition.  It’s where select antique mantons of different types (quartertones, empire, Elizabethans, Cantonese, modernist, cigar makers…) are displayed. The priceless shawls range in age from 100 to 180 years. They’re from private collections never seen by the public before.

The third room in the Manton exhibition aims to show how the shawls impact today’s Spanish fashion gurus the likes of Antonio Alvarado, leading designer of the Movida Madrileña,  recipient of the Premio Nacional de Diseño de Moda (National Award for Fashion Design) 2021, Best Designer as per  Avantgarde, Múnich, for his “Tacón amargo” collection in 1987, and other accolades. To this end, the iconic Mexican-born Spanish activist singer Alaska of the Movida, and award-winning Spanish actress María Barranco, have lent out shawls from their own collections.

Ladies at the Feria de Sevilla. Who would dare get caught without the Manton? (Photo: Canal Sur Media, CC BY-ND2.0, Flickr)

The mantons are very much a part of the Spanish contemporary fashion nearly five centuries after the Spaniards first knew of their existence, thanks to the Manila Galleon, a.k.a. La Nao de China and Galeón de Acapulco. At weddings, fashionable female guests know they can’t go wrong with the shawl draped on the shoulder of their alta costura outfit. At the world-famous Feria de Sevilla, the ladies attend all but uniformly clad in the traditional flamenco dresses accented by a beautiful Manton. Flamenco dancers can’t do without it either. Usually associated with formal wear, one may nevertheless sling a Manton de Manila over a jeans and  T-shirt ensemble for a touch of femininity and elegance; that would be fun!

Bailaora flamenca Paula Comitre twirls her Manton de Manila. (Photo by Delegacion de la Cultura y Patrimonio Historico Ayuntamiento de Cordoba, CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Today, it is inconceivable to think of the Manton without the fringes around it. Now, this seems to be an entirely Spanish addition. Somewhere down the road, Spanish women, who are the furthest thing from the shrinking violet, added the fringes to give the Manton verve and vigor, accentuate body movement, and grab attention.  In all probability, this is why the Manton de Manila is a must for intense bailaoras dancing flamenco which requires expressive use of the arms and rhythmic stomping of the feet. The Manton is a fabulous dance enhancer, intensifying the drama when the bailaora twirls it around her body and in the air.

On another plane, the relevance and continuing popularity of the Manton de Manila is, at least partly, due to the fact that it characterizes and symbolizes Spain’s contact with the Far East and Latin America from the time Spanish explorers ushered in the age of globalization in the 16th century. As the exhibition “La ruta del mantón de Manila: la feliz unión entre Asia, Hispanoamérica y España” says on its website, the Manton has “an Asian body, Spanish-American exuberance and Spanish soul.”

León de la Torre, Director General of Casa de America, on the occasion of the exhibition’s inauguration, asserted that besides its aesthetic value, the shawl “has a very important social and cultural value in the Hispanic American and Asian communities. This garment is a tangible example of how the history of cultural exchange [a cultural exchange borne of the Galleon Trade] has left a lasting mark on societies on three continents.”

The Manton is nothing if not a testament to the rich dialogue between three continents.




The curator

Exhibition ends 17 May 2024
Venue: Casa de America, Plaza de Cibeles s/n, Madrid
Curator: Verónica Durán Castello