- Couture and Consensus: Fashion and Politics in Postcolonial Argentina
Until the recent publication of Couture and Consensus, the development of fashion and dress in Argentina from the early 1830s to modern times had received little critical attention outside of Argentina and outside of a handful of books published in Spanish (most notably Susana Saulquin’s La moda en la Argentina from 1997, which offers a sociological analysis of the topic). But what makes Root’s consideration of fashion in Argentina so compelling and so truly unique is the wealth and interdisciplinary nature of the sources she so masterfully weaves together: from popular poetic cielitos to literary and historical texts, to periodicals and travelers’ comments to paintings and lithographs, Root pieces together an all too forgotten but nonetheless central feature of Argentine material, cultural and literary history: namely how fashion and dress have played a key role in the major debates in Argentine culture since the nation’s inception to its often tumultuous present. What also strikes the reader is Root’s ability to effortlessly move between the centuries, back and forth from the 2001 economic crisis to the early 1800s, finding and making the necessary links that connect the scattered pieces of a sartorial history no longer, thanks to this book, marked more by its incongruities than its affinities. To provide just one example of the author’s keen eye for the continuities that mark Argentina’s fashion history: in the introduction, Root discusses ex-President Carlos Menem’s insidious ability to change his appearance according to political need. Namely, he [End Page 163] moved between “sideburns and ponchos to appeal to the working classes” to “tailored Versace suits and boasted higher cheekbones and a surgically moved hairline” once his political position was solidified (xv). As Root shows later on, Menem was doing nothing more than tapping into a national history and a cultural memory that recognized and understood the gesture since Menem’s appropriation of the poncho was not unlike that of Juan Manuel de Rosas’s, the nineteenth-century caudillo dictator who also donned either the traditional poncho or the Federal uniform and whose sartorial strategies—namely the disavowal of Unitarian politics through dress—and whose political prowess marked nearly twenty years of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Chapter one, “Uniform Consensus,” offers an in-depth analysis of the emerging divide between Federalist and Unitarian politics after independence and more specifically how both the military uniform and the civilian one—the dress indicative of support for Rosas’s federation as well as the elegant dress of the Unitarian opposition—developed “alongside growing sentiments to unite the River Plate region into a nation” (3). Through a careful consideration of the narratives that were produced during this period around the topic of dress, the chapter considers how the uniform created a “ready-made identity and, in a relatively brief period, projected a unifying ideology” and how it also served to enforce the “visual power of Federalism” (12–14). Root discusses popular cielitos patrióticos, she analyzes the major periodicals of the period, Rosista insignias—in 1832, Rosas legalized the color crimson and the scarlet insignia as the official color and marker of the civilian uniform (10)—and portraits of Rosas and his daughter Manuela, as well as theatrical pieces and major foundational literary texts like Echeverría’s El matadero to uncover the ways in which appearance was quickly linked to political affiliation and how appearance became one of the fundamental arenas from which this war of images would be waged.
Chapter two, “Dressed to Kill,” considers the changing roles for women after independence and during the Rosas years. In the author’s words, this chapter “analyzes the representations of female bravery and beauty, sewing and embroidery, and other fashionable poses in the promotion of political vanity. The emphasis placed on their utility in mobilizing the population at large reveals an interesting shift in representation” (35). Root’s analysis ranges from how women participated in battle (often times donning male uniforms and posing as...