Establishing identity: Mexican Nationalism and High Fashion

Over the last century, Mexican fashion designers such as Armando Valdés Peza, Henri De Châtillon, and, most remarkably, Ramón Valdiosera created a legacy that still influences Mexican fashion today. However, two out of three of those designers vehemently denied the possibility of high fashion succeeding in Mexico, as did many of their European counterparts. Designers argued that the country did not have the ability to create high fashion, whether it be down to the industry, cloth making, or talent. It was Valdiosera who was tasked to create “Mexican” high fashion under the instruction of the president, Miguel Alemán Valdés (1946-1954). He was commissioned by President Alemán’s administration to develop a Mexican fashion identity within a deeply complex society, influenced by centuries of colonialism, ancient societies, and profoundly multicultural communities.

Alemán’s couture initiative emerged among numerous other government sponsored enterprises to give Mexico a place on the world stage. These initiatives date back to the Porfiriato (the era of the presidency of Mexico of Porfirio Díaz, 1876-1911), when programs to were put in place to “discover lo mexicano.” For example, archaeology played a massive part in the centralization of power during the Porfirian era and, by World War II, the number of government programs to address the creation of a strong, Mexican identity had continued to rise. Bueno argues that Mexico began to form a national identity through archaeology and patrimony during the Porfiriato. Diaz “worked harder than any of Mexico’s previous governments to bring the ancient objects under state control” by establishing legislation and government agencies to protect them. This was the beginning of a tradition of “instilling a sense of nationalism in the population” and attempting to create one, unified ‘Mexican’ identity. [1]

Alemán pushed for the development of the production and consumption of Mexican goods and arts, generating a Golden Age of consumption, propelled forward by “wartime disruption of global trade.” [2] During this era, industries of culturally ‘Mexican’ products benefited massively and “the owners of modern and larger factories were better able…to garner government aid and assistance.” [3] This became especially relevant to the fashion industry in July 1947, when the government indefinitely suspended the import of certain luxury items such as furs, jewelry, clothing, and more. Government intervention was then expanded further with the launch of the “Hecho en Mexico” (Made in Mexico) campaign, by President Alemán in October 1952. This scheme linked together national pride, cultural identity and modern manufacturing. The campaign mandated that all clothing manufactured for domestic consumption carry a label stating ‘Hecho en Mexico,’ as illustrated in Figure 1, and give the product’s region and factory of origin.” [4] There was specific government intervention put in place to not only ensure the success of modern Mexican industry, but the development of art, fashion, and culture on a national scale.

Amid this effort to advance the Mexican fashion industry was designer Ramón Valdiosera. Valdiosera, born in Ozuluama, Veracruz in 1918, was a key figure in the development of Mexican arts throughout the twentieth century. He is recognized for his contributions to art, directing, costume design and fashion. By 1949, he and Alemán had made plans to make a distinctly Mexican haute couture. Valdiosera, through his own work in costume and fashion design, would go on to create this look using themes from both indigenous and colonial culture (see Figure 2). He said himself that his goal was “to adapt the Mexican clothing of our ethnic groups such as huipiles, quechequémitl, and fabrics to contemporary fashion.” [5] For example, he’d include the vibrant colors and natural motifs from indigenous culture, hold photoshoots at ancient historical sights, and hold fashion shows in colonial period building. With the support of the Alemán administration, Valdiosera paved the way in Mexican high fashion and produced the ‘Mexican’ look. Including his infamous link to a single color, Rosa Mexicano (Mexican Pink), Valdiosera’s designs embraced ties to nationalism and celebration of ‘Mexican’ identity. He paved the way for the future of Mexican fashion such as Pedro Loredo, Pineda Covalin, and more.

The nationalistic element and the legacy of Valdiosera’s thirty-year career still have a strong place in Mexican fashion today. Although, some argue that there is not only room to untangle Mexican fashion from cultural identity, but an entirely different way of understanding the concepts of fashion and identity. [6] Contemporary Mexican designers must consider whether nationalism and geographic identity are still as relevant as fifty years ago, when Mexico struggled with its own identity among a rapidly globalizing world. While some of these artists do genuinely represent a break from fashion so deeply intertwined with nationalism and culture, many remain loyal to the legacy of cultural identity. For example, Pineda Covalín, founded in 1996, still aims to represent the transformation of ancient cultural expressions in modern Latin American life. [7] Pineda Covalín employs a variety of Mesoamerican motifs including butterflies, feathers and hummingbirds, all significant in ancient Mesoamerican cosmology, as well as the vibrant colours of Mexican fashion (see Figure 3). [8] The designer also utilizes architectural motifs of pre-Hispanic civilizations such as the pyramids of Teotihuacan (see Figure 4). [9] Pineda Covalín is a high fashion designer, with prices ranging from $800 to $6000 and is one of many modern Mexican designers still expressing feelings of nationalism and historical identity in their work. Pineda Covalín is a modern example of Alemán and Valdiosera’s legacy – that is, the weaving of culture, nationalism, and high fashion.

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