In Art

Spanish farthingale in the 17th Century: Women’s bodies controlled through fashion

The Guardainfante was a type of farthingale, which developed through time from a bell shape to a huge rectangular shape, which could remind us of the 18th Century Mantuas from France and England.

The Spanish word “Guardainfante” can be translated as “hide the infant”. This hanging structure for the skirt would act as an extremely rigid armour that would limit the movements completely; to this, we need to add the rigid (type of) bodice which would limit the movement of the arms as well. Could this rigidness and stillness be seen as the materialisation of the rigidness needed for women at the Spanish Court? No improper movements could be made, no movements in the clothing, no possibility of sitting, almost no possibility of walking and difficulty going through doors. Is this fashionable armour an extension of the censorship of the movements, both in body and in soul, I wonder.

Inés de Zúñiga, Countess of Monterrey, 1660-1670; by Juan Carreño de Miranda. Image courtesy Museo Lázaro Galdiano.
La reina doña Mariana de Austria, 1652-1653, Velázquez.
Courtesy Museo Nacional del Prado.

Its popularity reached its peak during the reign of Queen Mariana of Austria (1649–65), and declined after Philip IV’s death in 1665. However, before we get to its moment of splendour, it is necessary and fascinating to look back and see how this item became the centre of a political and social debate at the Spanish Court and a tool to control women.

When the Guardainfante appeared in Spain around the 1630s it caused strong views and criticism: critics denounced the Guardainfante as a scandalous and indecent garment that ruined the reputations of women who wore it and corrupted society. Why all this rage and strong opinions about this fashionable item, which was popularised by the women at Court?

The Guardainfante was seen by many as an item used for women who wanted to trick their husbands, hiding illicit pregnancies. Detractors of this item would use aggressive and offensive language to refer to it, and would condemn the women who used it. According to them, women were using it as a weapon to fight against male authority.

The value of a woman, her reputation, her credibility, her fertility, her honour, her respectability, her whole persona was under question if she refused to follow the orders and abandon wearing this item. The Guardainfante needed to be controlled, so women and their bodies could stay in the right path. The one that was dictated for them.

Finally, social pressure won and on 13 April 1639 the Guardainfante was banned for all women except for prostitutes aiming to discredit this garment which was so in vogue.

“The King our Lord orders that no woman of any rank or class may wear the guardainfante, or another device, or similar costume, except for those women with a license from the authorities who openly make ill use of their bodies” (On the public announcement of the new sumptuary laws, see AHN, Consejos, Libros de gobierno, libro 1224, fol. 65).

However, this ban would not last long. The item continued to be worn by the King’s own wives and daughters. Anna of Austria (1649 –65), second wife of Queen of Phillip IV (1621-1665), would make it fashionable again. It became one of the iconic items of the Spanish Baroque. For the last period of Philip IV’s reign, this item which had been banned and associated only with prostitutes, became so popular thanks to the women in Court, that it grew bigger than ever in physical size and political importance, becoming even a symbol of the country and popularised beyond their borders.

None have survived, physically. We have some patterns and we have wonderful depictions in portraits. The iconic style of the Guardainfante can be seen in the portraits by Master Diego Velázquez; beauty and perfection in those magical brush strokes contrasting with the darkness and rigidity of that fashion – women dressed to impress. But there are so many questions that are still unanswered (or under scholarly research), such as how did the Guardainfante feel when wearing it? Did women want to wear it? Was it really used outside Court and on stage? Was it used for different activities? Did non-aristocratic women wear it, in order to emulate the royal fashion? Was it actually a misogynistic garment to restrict women physically?

After the Spanish king Charles II died without an heir in 1700, the Spanish Court dress, as the leading fashion in Europe, would decline; the new French Bourbon dynasty that took over the Spanish throne would keep wearing the Guardainfante during a transitional period, but the Madrid court would eventually adopt the French fashions that would continue to dominate Spanish trends for the rest of the eighteenth century. Fashion was changing as well as Court protocol; a bit more of movement in the textiles can be seen, linked to a relative openness in society, and in particular, a relatively (although limited) freedom of women, or at least moving their dressed bodies a bit more.

Transition towards the new trend, adopting the French fashion. Marie Louise of Orleans (1662 –1689) Queen consort of Spain from 1679 to 1689.

As with everything in fashion, there is always a comeback for every single item and trend. The Guardainfante comeback would be in Spain at the end of the eighteenth century; the new item would be called ‘tontillo’. It can be seen in Goya’s famous portrait of 1789 of Queen Maria Luisa of Parma (1751–1819; Queen 1788–1808). This new item might have been associated with the values of a former glory and splendour of the now exhausted and debilitated empire.

Queen Maria Luisa de Parma, 1789, by Francisco Goya.
Image curtesy Museo Nacional del Prado.

We could also think that comebacks are not limited only to the clothing items, but to the societal demands and expectations for women in terms of fashion, even laws coming from the authorities dictating what women can or cannot wear, how and when to wear it, and what morals and labels are associated to them depending on the item they wear, or don’t wear. Even the credibility of a woman in front of a jury can be put in question depending on what she was wearing on the night that a certain horrendous attack happened to her. Isn’t this outrageous and exhausting?

I look at Princess Margarita; every time that I wander around the Prado Museum in Madrid, I visit her. I look into her eyes, that five-year-old wearing the wide and fashionable Guardainfante. Were you also exhausted, Margarita? Did you want to move your arms? Did you want to make your skirt move with the wind, feel free like the wind, I wonder.

Images curtesy Museo Nacional del Prado. Painting: Las Meninas, Velázquez, 1656.

This article was originally published in: The Historians Magazine (December 2020) run by @historywithrosie

Further reading:

  • Cabrea Lafuente, Prego de Lis , 2019. Catalogo Extra Moda, el nacimiento de la prensa de moda en España. AC/E.
  • Laver, James, 1969. A Concise History of Costume. Book Club Associates: London.
  • Tarrant, Naomi, 1994. The Development of Costume. Routledge.
  • Welch, Evelyn, 2017. Fashioning the Early Modern. Dress, textiles, and innovation in Europe 1500-1800. Pasold Studies in Textile History.
  • Wunder, Amanda, 2015. Women’s Fashions and Politics in Seventeenth-Century Spain: The Rise and Fall of the Guardainfante. Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Spring 2015), pp. 133-186 .

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