Empire of Fashion explores how fashion emerged and developed throughout Spanish America during the eighteenth century. It aims to understand the ways in which fashion played a role as an economic and social force in the different Spanish colonies throughout the Americas.
Empire of Fashion consists of a growing database with relevant examples of the extensive body of archival documents, visual images, written manuals, and existing textile objects from eighteenth-century Spanish America. It is a collection of various written and visual records of fashion and related information from historical materials and objects, such as fragments of textiles, garments, and jewelry. With the creation of this database, the research project aims to produce new knowledge of the dissemination and development of fashion in colonial Spanish America and to provide new ways of understanding the complex meanings of fashion in different historical contexts.
Empire of Fashion builds on a growing number of studies of the development fashion as a global phenomenon in the pre-modern world. In doing so, it contributes to the ongoing academic discourse that has questioned the Eurocentric approach that has been repeatedly used to study the history of fashion, which has resulted in the consideration of fashion as an exclusively Western, modern phenomenon. The bibliographies included on this website highlight some of the previous studies that have exposed the emergence of fashion as a global phenomenon, as well as some of the more traditional research that has been published on pre-modern and early modern fashion and the history and historiography of dress.
Empire of Fashion is also intended as an intervention to de-colonialize the Digital Humanities and Digital Art History. To do so, it provides a growing bilingual database that is free and open to navigate, and which can be used by scholars and students of Spanish American colonial fashion and art in different ways. As the database grows, it will include more objects that are currently housed in different places of the world, some of which have never been published digitally before. In doing so, the project aims to provide a new form of access to these objects from around the world – something particularly important, for example, in the case of material objects that are housed away from their place of origin and which have received little scholarly attention because of their lack of accessibility.
The growing number of educational resources in the website are meant to inform the ways in which the objects in the database are understood by different publics. The glossary is the most basic educational resource, providing definitions and translations of terms that are commonly found in archival records and descriptions of textiles and garments from the period. It also includes notes on terms that are often considered ambiguous and polemic, such as the different words used to describe "fashion" (including "dress" and "costume," for example), as well as some of the debates related to their use. The interpretive essays in this section are short written pieces related to the objects featured in the database, which provide examples of different approaches on inquiry to these material objects. Finally, the thematic bibliographies include highlighted research publications related to the study of fashion history in Spanish America and beyond. As the research project advances, it is expected that the amount and extent of these educational resources continues to grow.
In the future, Empire of Fashion also aims to include visualizations of trade networks and the traveling of objects in the early modern world, as well as animated recreations of the transformations of trends and the adaptations of Pre-Columbian and European fashions in colonial Spanish America. A potential expansion to include objects from the colonial Americas beyond the Spanish Empire is also under consideration.
Laura Beltran-Rubio is a Ph.D. student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. She holds a MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design. Her research lies at the intersection of dress history and art history, with a particular focus on the history of fashion in the pre-twentieth century Atlantic World.
She believes strongly in the potential of fashion as a social and political phenomenon, worthy of scholarly attention. Fashion, its production, and its consumption, reveal some of the most basic structures and ideas held by a society in a determined point in time. The study of fashion is, therefore, a road to a better understanding of human history and its cultures.