- La ropa cósmica: Identity and Fashion in 1940s Mexico
José Vasconcelos, recent Mexican education minister, in 1925, published his essay “La raza cósmica”—The Cosmic Race. In this famous commentary on national ethnicity and identity, Vasconcelos emphasized what he considered the positive results of racial and ethnic miscegenation in the nation’s development and promoted a version of nationalism that would incorporate the country’s indigenous past more inclusively into the emerging revolutionary identity. According to Vasconcelos, the cosmic race represented a mixing of the most positive characteristics of Mexico’s pre-Colombian past with the best attributes of its Iberian heritage. Two of the strongest cultures came together in the Americas to produce a powerful new cosmic race—personified in the Mexican mestizo.1 His widely acclaimed tenure as education minister allowed him to debut this philosophy that had, in part, inspired his education policies (1921–1924).
In the historical dialogue, Vasconcelos’s recipe for nationalism has generated some debate. On the one hand, his mandate for a more inclusive policy toward the indigenous was certainly more progressive than many of his contemporaries, especially compared to U.S. policies of segregation at the time. Vasconcelos’s celebration of the nation’s indigenous past also was a marked improvement over the overtly racist policies of the positivist government leaders who had often attempted to disguise and ignore the indigenous in the latter years of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, many criticized the philosophy behind “La raza cósmica” for picking and choosing “good” Indian traits and leaving the “bad” traits and indigenous identity behind. Many scholars have argued that Vasconcelos and others “wanted the Indian to be an integral part of society,” but only in specific and approved ways. “They sought to conserve (the Indians’) strong features and to combine them with the values and customs of the modern world . . . this meant the incorporation of the Indian into civilization, but a civilization formed by merging the European contribution with the Indian’s.”2
Vasconcelos’s ideas ran parallel to an era of indigenismo, defined as the celebration of the indigenous past, in revolutionary circles. For Vasconcelos, the indigenous heritage had to be integrated into national culture through mestizaje, arguing that the true value of the indigenous was evident only after [End Page 95] mixing with the Iberian race to create the mestizo. The intellectual and artistic applications of indigenismo in the 1920s and 1930s are well known through the activities of people such as Samuel Ramos, Moisés Saénz, Diego Rivera, and others,3 but the expressions of artists and intellectuals were often closely tied to the “official” version of indigenismo. Presidential policies from the administration of Plutarco Elías Calles to that of Lázaro Cárdenas actively promoted the image of the indigenous to varying degrees. By the 1940s, the ideology of mixing and combining the strengths of national traditions with the benefits of modernization had come to dominate official government policy.4
This essay suggests that scholars discuss these Vasconcelian ideals through a close examination of the daily activities of the Mexican people. Everyday expressions of indigenismo and mestizaje reveal a negotiation between tradition and modernity in the ordinary, the quotidian—through popular culture. In particular, this essay considers a version of mestizaje through the lens of women’s beauty and fashion standards in the 1940s within the context of World War II. As worldwide fashion trends turned toward “modern” attire, many designers and consumers within Mexico embraced a new, more cosmopolitan look. Others cautioned against an abandonment of the nation’s traditional cultural heritage. As a result, many discussions of beauty and fashion incorporated new modern trends, while at the same time attempting to remain loyal to an aesthetic sense of nationalism and tradition. One Mexican designer even produced an entire line of women’s clothing that epitomized the mestizaje of traditional, indigenous culture and a more modern, foreign influence. La ropa cósmica, or the cosmic dress, became a fitting illustration of Vasconcelos’s arguments expressed through popular culture.
During the 1940s, Mexico entered an era of transition at both the national and global level. As a...