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Dressed for Dissent

photo by Stephen Salpukas‘Couture & Consensus: Fashion and Politics in Postcolonial Argentina’ by Regina A. Root
Story By Lillian Stevens

Couture & Consensus, a new book by Regina Root, offers a history of fashion and its influence on the political climate following Argentina’s revolution of independence in 1810. In her book, Root explains how dress served as a critical expression of political agency and citizenship during the struggle toward a new Argentine nation.

The result of an extensive archival study that took several years to complete, Couture & Consensus: Fashion and Politics in Postcolonial Argentina reveals how politics merged with dress to encourage creativity and (depending on the wearer’s ideology) to enforce or protest authoritarian practices.

“This book maps the search for a collective identity, or consensus, through material culture. At a time when the region was at war and the idea of an Argentine nation still seemed a dream, fashion became a creative language through which to engage the nation-building project,” says Root, Class of 1963 Term Distinguished Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures.

Conformity and rebellion

There are five chapters, beginning with “Uniform Consensus” in which Root describes the often theatrical manifestations of conformity and rebellion. Root explains the divide between the Argentine Federalists (those who pledged loyalty to Juan Manuel de Rosas, an authoritarian leader) and the Unitarians who opposed the Rosas regime. Rosas, she writes, actually mandated a uniform for civilians in the province of Buenos Aires, while an 1832 decree established crimson as the “color of faith” for the Argentine federation. Unitarians wore green or light blue—when they could get away with it, Root says. When such colors were outlawed, Unitarians risked death when inserting political messages into their top hats.

The second chapter, “Dressed to Kill,” is about female complicity during the push for independence from Spain. Here, Root gives voice and presence to the many nameless and overlooked women who participated actively in the war effort—women who constructed uniforms and who sometimes even donned them in order to fight during the various (ultimately unsuccessful) British invasions of Buenos Aires.

Big hair for the cause

Then comes “Fashion as Presence,” the third chapter, which explores the meaning of exaggerated dress—from oversized skirts to giant hair combs called peinetones—in the quest for female emancipation. Peinetones, usually made of tortoiseshell and reaching one yard square, were worn by women of the 1820s and 1830s to distance themselves visually from the fashions and customs of Spain. By wearing massive skirts and intimidating headpieces, women also commanded a space of their own, effectively asserting their presence in public, Root says. These emblems of Argentine identity sometimes incorporated political slogans or patriotic motifs. “They definitely called into question the political vanity of 19th-century male leaders who had fought Spanish oppression, but then denied women their emancipation,” she said.

In the fourth chapter, “Fashion Writing,” Root demonstrates how easy it was for authors to elude authorities by masquerading their politics under the guise of entertainment prose. As a result, it became possible in postcolonial Argentina to regain control of the body politic by planting urban, democratic ideals within the pages of fashion magazines. In this chapter, Root recounts the liberating qualities of fashion at this pivotal moment of national reorganization and modernization.

Empowering Argentine women

The final chapter is titled “Searching for Female Emancipation.” Root gives voice to the political foothold women were gradually gaining. While revolutionary men gained political footing under the guise of writing articles about fashion, it was the women who felt empowered by their ability to finally speak their minds. Root calls on everything from storylines of novels to the history of the magazines to prove this point.

In the book’s epilogue, Root discusses how the tradition of mixing fashion with politics continues in modern-day Argentina. Among the examples she cites are the shawls of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. These are the mothers of los desaparecidos—the thousands of people who “disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War promulgated 1976-83 by the Videla administration. “One usually recognizes a Mother of the Plaza de Mayo by the white shawl that she wears, the name of her beloved child cross-stitched in blue thread on the back corner,” Root writes.

Couture & Consensus was published by University of Minnesota Press this past June, the text is intended for a scholarly audience but Root says that it will appeal to a broad range of disciplines.

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