Tuesday, June 29, 2021

What Did the Californios Really Wear, and How Can We Find Out?

How do we get past the myths and fantasies about the clothing worn by the Californios - the Spanish-speaking people of early California? Not a question of critical importance in the grand scheme of things, I know, but one that has occupied me for many years now.

Scene from Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925), with Mary Astor and Douglas Fairbanks

By myths and fantasies, I mean what we think we know after watching different versions of Zorro and other movies set in "Old California"; looking at the paintings of Alexander Harmer, James Walker, or the drawings of Jo Morra; or attending a reenactment or living history event at an historic site in California. 

Californio Horseman, by William Myers. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

I've always believed that the best way to get to the truth about the past is to go straight to the original sources. For example, in 1840 a young French diplomat arrived in California at the start of a journey of several years to bring back information about the western coast of North America. His name was Eugène Duflot de Mofras (1810 - 1884), and his memoir* of that journey contained the following description the clothing Californio men wore during his visit : 

"The usual costume of the Californian [man] consists of loose cloth pantaloons, open from the knee, and showing cotton° drawers, an embroidered white cotton shirt, with a black cravat tied loosely about the neck; a silk sash, a printed cottonˆ roundabout jacket, padded on the shoulders and breast, or a cloth roundabout, embroidered and ornamented with passementeries; finally, buckskin shoes, and a broad-brimmed black hat wrapped around with an enormous braid, and sometimes decorated with silver eagles. Below this hat, they usually wear a black silk scarf. The sarape, is blanket quite similar to the South American poncho; a hole in the middle allows the head to pass through. They also sometimes cover themselves with the manga, a sort of long square mantle with rounded corners, made of broadcloth, with an opening like a serape, but around which is a circular velvet collar, adorned with a large fringe in silk, gold or silver."

Californians Lassoing a Steer, by Augusto Ferran, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

"These Costumes are very expensive; the calzoneras, or loose pantaloons with buttons and gold braid, sell for fifty or sixty piasters; a fine sarape or a manga with gold fringes, from sixty to one hundred piastres. When the rancheros ride on horseback, they tie below the knee, using embroidered garters, a kind of legging they call botas (boots). These leggings, in the fold of which they place the long knife which never leaves them, are formed of pieces of shaped leather, rather thick but very supple, about fifteen inches high and a foot and a half wide. They are worked with a [pounce] wheel and stamping tools, and have very pretty designs cut into them and embossed. They wear a pair of huge spurs, whose rowels are no less than four inches in diameter, and consist of five points the size of a goose feather with blunt tips . . . It is needless to add that in Monterey and among some inhabitants of the [other] pueblos, one finds an almost European costume, and, on special occasions, the inevitable habit noir [business suit]. Rich Californians alone make use of fine cloth and silk; the others use buckskin breeches, cotton and coarse woolen fabrics."

Duflot de Mofras' account of men's dress is not only detailed, but includes two points that I think are often overlooked. The first is that already by 1840, when the author visited California, Euro-American type men's clothing was beginning to be fashionable. Not surprisingly, this was especially true in Monterey - the capitol - and in the other towns. I would venture to say that this is because such clothing was mostly worn by government officials and others more or less recently arrived from Mexico and elsewhere.

The other point that Duflot de Mofras makes, after describing the finest sorts of garments worn by Californio men, is that only a minority of Californios wore them - the wealthiest men at the top of society. He states quite clearly that the majority used clothing of buckskin, cotton, and coarse wool. Duflot de Mofras does not say that their clothing was essentially different in appearance, but only in their materials. "Buckskin," peau de daim in the original, could have meant braintain leather, but more more often it was likely to be gamuza, a kind of suede leather that was both imported from Mexico and produced locally. 

Which is why Augusto Ferran's circa 1849 painting of Californio vaqueros is an appropriate illustration here (above). These men are dressed mostly in gamuza, with cotton shirts and drawers. The man on the ground wears blue calzoneras, probably of wool. All of their clothing, even their botas, is quite plain and without ornament of any kind. 

A California Rancho Scene Near Monterey (c.1849), by Alfred Sully. Oakland Museum of California

Duflot de Mofras also had something to say about Californio women's dress. Contrary to popular belief today, the women of Mexican California dressed more plainly than their men. He also made two remarks that are often overlooked. 

“The costume of the women is simpler; it usually consists of a printed cotton or a silk dress, the cut far from French fashions; a rebozo, a kind of cotton or silk scarf, with which they cover their heads as needed, and which they replace on feast days with large embroidered crepe de Chine shawls; a very few have preserved the 
black [lace] Spanish mantilla. In summer, instead of an entire dress, they only have a skirt (enaguas), of which the upper part is a different color from the rest. Silk stockings and satin shoes are reserved for best dress. When they uncover their heads, they let their braids hang down, or even hanging loose without braiding it; but when doing up their hair, they wear a black silk kerchief on their heads. The hat, which is huge, is only used by them when riding horseback.”

Duflot de Mofras, along with almost all visitors to California agreed that the men, like songbirds, had the brighter plumage. Only a few, like Richard Henry Dana, Jr., seems to have thought that Californio women were slaves to fashion. The rest tell us that Californio women dressed plainly and, by 1834, it was only older women and the poor who still used the chemise and petticoat for daily wear. All others wore dresses which, Duflot de Mofras tells us, were not of the most fashionable cut. It is true that in hot weather many women went back to wearing the chemise and petticoat, which was essentially underwear, but other authors noted that this was mostly meant for use in the privacy of their homes.

The two points in this description that are overlooked have to do with head coverings. Duflot de Mofras and several others, including Californios, testify to the fact that women never wore hats, except when riding on horseback. Presumably, this was because they needed their hands to manage their mounts. He also describes another head covering, a black silk scarf, which was the camorra, a kind of turban that covered most of the wearer's hair. 

Here are two eyewitness images that, though painted after Duflot de Mofras' time, help to illustrate what he saw. Alfred Sully's picture of a Monterey rancho (above) shows three women who appear to be young. At least two of them, and possibly all three, are wearing dresses. The one in blue has draped her rebozo around her head and upper body - something that they almost always did when going out of doors. Also, the woman on horseback wears her own hat, and not one borrowed from the gentleman behind her on the saddle. 

Feliciana Pacheco, by Leonardo Barbieri (c. 1855). De Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University

The other painting, by Barbieri (above), shows an older woman who wears the camorra. There were other ways of tying theblack silk turban, but this was a common one. 

We can see that the testimony of Duflot de Mofras, combined with eyewitness images, presents a different, less romanticized view of Californio dress during the Mexican era in California. Many other authors and quite a few images support this conclusion. These might be the subject of a future post. 

*Exploration du Territoire de L’Oregon, des Californies et de la Mer Vermeille, Exécutée Pendant les Années 1840, 1841 et 1842 . . . Paris: Libraire de la Société de Géographie, 1844.

°The French word is toile, which literally means canvas but should be understood as plain coarse cotton fabric. 

ˆIndienne. In Spanish, this was indianilla, which was originally printed fabric from India but by this time was applied to any printed cotton, including those made in Mexico.

  PassementeriesPassementerie are decorations made from silk, metallic braid, and other items. On surviving Californio clothing, sequins are sometimes added to metalic braid decorations. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mexicali Rose: Tooled Leather Designs in Early California, Fact and Fiction - Part 2

From various surviving artifacts there appears to have been a style of leather tooling that was used in the California missions and by leather workers throughout California in the Mexican era, some of whom may have been former neophytes.
There is a confssional preserved at Mission Santa Inez that has a tooled leather seat. From the fact that it was recorded in the 1930s by the Index of American Design, I believe it could date to Mexican era California. For those who might not know, the Index was a Depression-era government program meant to record significant cultural artifacts and to keep artists employed. Its images are available through the National Gallery website and, though the identifications are nearly useless (this confessional seat is described as a "carpet"), you can sort them by items from California.
What emerges are several pieces that seem to show a very consistent visual style that includes knots, parallel lines, diaper patterns, tear drops, and highly stylized flowers and foliage. 
Unfortunately, the website tells us nothing about who owned the objects when they were recorded in the 1930s but I've been assured by the National Gallery's archivist that I can look through the records and try to pin that information down the next time I'm in Washington, D.C. (which will have to wait until next year).
The last image is one I've posted before, a mochila that I've been told dates from the 1850s. Nevertheless, I believe that the tooling displays many of the same decorative elements found on other leather objects connected with ante-gringo California.
People might be interested in using these design elements when recreating Californio artifacts, including saddles. I should note that the way the space is divided up on this mochila, with a "keyhole" in the center and more-or-less triangular shapes front and back is one that I've seen used as far back as Spanish Mexico.

A. Confessional, Mission Santa Inez, California
B. and C. Confessional seat, Mission Santa Inez
D. Confessional seat, Mission Santa Inez (Index of American Design)
E. Padre's sandal (Index of American Design)
F. Leather baptismal font cover (Index of American Design)
G. and H. Unidentified pieces of tooled leather (Index of American Design)
J. Mochila (Index of American Design)

Monday, August 5, 2019

Mexicali Rose: Tooled Leather Designs in Early California, Fact and Fiction

I am a great admirer of Jo Mora as an artist, an illustrator, and an author. I really love his work and have for many years. However, I also believe that he is the source of quite a few misconceptions about early Californian material culture. One in particular is his interpretation of the kinds of leather tooling patterns seen in early California.


Even though Mora must have had many opportunities to observe early examples of leather tooling that were present in museums, missions, and private collections, in his artwork he usually showed designs based on the kinds of work available in the 20th century - especially those featuring rambling, free-form compositions of naturalistic roses and foliage. See for example his illustration, "Juez de Campo," from his masterpiece work, "Californios, The Saga of the Hard-Riding Vaqueros, America's First Cowboys," (1949).


I grew up in California and remember seeing this kind of work many times, particularly on a purse my mother bought in Tijuana in the 1940s. I still have that purse, though not a photograph of it. But it is very similar to the one I show here. Apparently Santa Barbara was also a center of this style of tooling by at least the early 1900s.


However, I am convinced that very different styles of tooling were in use in Mexican era California (1822-1847) than the ones Mora so loved. The compositions found on imported items such as saddles and botas were much more stylized, often fitting into the framework of boundary lines and the motifs included symmetrical flowers, tear-drops, crescents, etc.


The rambling, naturalistic designs shown by Mora simply do not appear to have existed in either Mexico or California at this time, and probably nowhere else in the Hispanic West.
Shown here are a Sinaloan saddle said to date to the 1840s, but from the first half of the 19th century, more or less, I believe [https://www.cowanauctions.com/lot/mexican-sinaloa-saddle-on-a-jineta-pattern-tree-ca-1840-180253], my drawing of a bota in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Sutter's Fort Costume Manual), and a coraza in the collection of Monterey State Historic Park.
Even simpler, more stylized designs are found on tooled leather that appears to have been made in "ante Gringo "California. More about that soon.

A. "Juez de Campo" by Jo Mora (1949)
B. Sinaloan Saddle, circa 1850 - Cowan's Auctions
C. Vintage Mexican Leather Purse, circa 1950
D. Imported Mexican Bota (Legging) - Sutter's Fort Costume Manual.
E. Tooled and Embroidered Saddle Cover (Coraza), Probably Mexican before 1860 (California State Parks)

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A Smile of Recognition

 I've seen their work for years and admired it, but until I ran across their names in an old New York Times magazine article, I never put all of their work together. They are Adrie and Alfons Kennis, Dutch, and identical twins who produce the most lifelike and humane interpretations of prehistoric humans and other animals.
More than just exceptionally talented artists, they bring a humanity to this subject that I find extraordinary. There have been many others who have done this kind of work. I'm thinking especially of Zdeněk Burian, the Czech artist whose work must have helped inspire these two http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/burian.htm.
But few of them ever thought to have our earliest ancestors smile at us, as if in recognition.
The article describes the twins as "Hyperactive. Like rubber balls." And that energy seems to affect their work, as they fold layers of detail into every wrinkle, pore, and scratch on their figures.
They have also absorbed huge amounts of information about how non-modern societies around the world stand, sit, arrange their hair, paint themselves, and so on.
"All this variation!" Adrien shouted at the author of this article. "It's beautiful!"
After leaving the two, the author wrote, "It only registered later: I had spent the day with identical twins who, since childhood, have been stupified by how different human beings can be."
Here is a link to their website. I could hardly stop looking. http://www.kenniskennis.com/site/Home/

Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Clothing of early California

I was in Sacramento on Wednesday to have a meeting about the historical clothing books I'm creating for California State Parks. We're getting close to publishing volume 1, "The Mexican Era, 1822-1847." It will be a history of all of the clothing worn in California except traditional Native American. There will be 13 chapters divided into three sections: A. Paisanos (Californios, Franciscans, Native Californians, and Soldados); B. Newcomers (Colony Ross, Mountain Men, Hudson's Bay Company, Merchant Seamen, and Euro-American); and C. California Conquest (US Navy, Marines, Army, and Volunteers). Each chapter will have an overview of the clothing or uniforms, with detailed color plates by me, eyewitness images and descriptions, additional drawings by me, and a bibliography. In addition, there will be three appendices: Clothing California (how California acquired its clothing, fabrics, news about fashion, etc.); Goods for Sale (a list of things you might have been able to purchase in California during this era); Horse gear (Californio and American made "Spanish" saddles, Euro-American (English and "Hybrid" saddles), and Native American (used by HBC and trappers). And, finally, there will be an extensive glossary of terms used in the book with definitions of fabrics, trims, horse gear, garment types, etc.

Volume 1 will come out in the first half of 2019.

Volume 2, which should also be out next year, will cover the early American period, 1848-1860, which will be mostly Euro-American clothing worn by immigrants, miners, gamblers, dance hall girls, craftsmen, etc. There will also be chapters on entertainers, Californios, Native Californians, and the so-called "foreign" miners including the Chinese, Chilean, Malays, Hawaiians, etc.
Volume 3, also out next year, is about living history in California State Parks - how it developed, what it is today, how to organize and maintain living history programs, etc.

The illustrations I am creating are still in the development stage. I'm including two of my sketches with mocked-up captions, and just a peek at one of the finished color plates - Californio vaqueros of the 1820s - 1830s.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Anquera to Anquerita


The subject of anqueras came up yesterday on "Alta California Material Culture" page on Facebook. 



Anqueras are leather rump covers that usually are edged with metal jinglers. They are believed to be descended from the horse armor used by Medieval and Renaissance Era cavalrymen in Europe and brought to the New World by the conquistadors. But in Mexico they were popular with civilian horsemen, too. It's hard to say why. Some declare that it is useful in training a horse to lift up its hind legs. I really don't know.

Perhaps because the jinglers started showing up in archaeological sites in the Southwest, there was a general idea that soldados de cuera used the full, rump-covering anqueras and, from at least the 1960s, a number of artists showed them on their reconstructions of mounted presidial cavalrymen. However, I haven't seen any evidence for the use of full anqueras by anyone in the Spanish Borderlands in the 18th and 19th centuries, though they lingered in civilian use into the late-1800s and are seeing a revival today.



Instead, by at least the beginning of the 18th century, a smaller rump cover was used, just covering the horse's croup - the top of the rump. They still used the same sort of jinglers as the large anqueras - which is probably why they've been found in Southwestern archaeological sites.


The defensive usefulness of the anquera disappeared long before they were completely abandoned by presidial soldiers. After all, why a rump cover but nothing for the horse's chest? But, by 1800, anqueras appear to have been largely abandoned by the military. In civilian use, however, the anquera lingered on into the early 1860s as the "anquerita," which served no real purpose except, as some eyewitnesses declare, a place for the caballero to sit when he rode with a lady sitting on the saddle proper. 


A. 1834 ca. "The Hacendero and His Mayordomo," by Carl Nebel. From, "Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans la partie la plus intéressante du Mexique," (Paris, 1836).

B. Anquera for sale on the Michael D. Higgins Antique Indian Art website (viewed Sept. 3, 2018):https://mhiggins.com

C. Reconstruction of a soldado de cuera by José Bueno found online. Original source unknown.

D. Soldier from the Presidio of Monterey, California, attacking native peoples, drawn by José Cardero, 1791 - Museo Naval, Madrid.

E. Watercolor of a presidial cavalryman painted to illustrate a report by Raimundo Murill, 1803. Archivo de las Indias, Spain.

F. "Californian Catching Wild Horses with Riata, by Arthur Nahl, 1859 - Oakland Museum of California.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

History and Truth

Today someone posted this on a friend's Facebook page:

"This has always been my problem with history. It's so distorted. I find it hard to trust."

I and others like me who love history must always feel a little disappointed when we encounter those who believe it is distorted and untrustworthy. All branches of knowledge change over time when new data or new ways of interpreting that data, emerge. Even the hard sciences such as chemistry or geology - even physics, which is mostly understood through advanced mathematics, is hotly disputed. Albert Einstein had quite a lot of trouble accepting the new quantum theories that we take for granted today. 

If someone is looking for absolute truth in any branch of knowledge, they won't find it. Yet I believe that each honestly reasoned attempt we make to understand things, even history, based on evidence, advances us that much farther . . . if not toward absolute truth, then at least toward a better understanding.

Image: c1770 limestone relief  of Clio, the muse of History. From Plas Llangoedmor estate, Cardigan, Wales. http://salvonews.blogspot.com/2010/03/alex-puddy-over-moon-at-853k-christies.html