- Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900–1939 by Ageeth Sluis
Deco Body, Deco City provides an analysis of the changing idealized feminine body in Mexican society at the start of the twentieth century and compares it with Mexico City’s architectural landscape. Mexico City’s physical layout and the way its citizenry dramatically transformed itself during the early decades mirrored the political upheaval of the period. In 1900, Mexico was under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, who was enamored of French culture, but with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, Mexico’s Eurocentric gaze was redirected inward. Although European cultural movements continued to play a role in the country’s development, autochthonous elements came to be valued and incorporated as part of an authentic expression of Mexican identity.
Ageeth Sluis, an associate professor of history at Butler University, masterfully structures her analysis so that the reading of the feminine body as a cultural text serves as the foundational support to show the relationship to the architectonic elements in the era’s constructions. She presents a link between city, modernity, and spectacle by zooming in on the particular and moving outward, giving a panoramic view of the reconceptualization of [End Page 236] the feminine body through the city’s changed skyline. As in European and North American culture, the “‘Deco body’ was a new, ideal female physique that stressed length, height, and androgyny, and this new aesthetic echoed in urban landscapes” (3). However, this ideal played out differently in the Mexican capital given the tension between its undeniable indigenous roots and Western culture’s influence. Sluis claims that the Deco body’s emergence manifested in two ways: “the visibility of women’s social and physical mobility in the city, and the entertainment industry as helping to facilitate these changes” (15).
At the turn of the century, stage divas like Esperanza Iris and María Conesa shifted the conceptualization of femininity by taking their performance and embracing that performative act beyond the theater’s confines. On the one hand, the divas’ manner of dress and elegant affectations made them indistinguishable from “señoras decentes,” but on the other hand, they incited scandal through their “love struck” admirers (60). Still, the ideal body was modeled on the corseted nineteenth-century shape, which made her indistinguishable from the moral and respectable society lady.
Starting with the Mexican Revolution, the diva’s role diminishes, while the Deco body, “which stressed length, height, and androgyny, [and] helped to reconfigure Mexico City in terms of gender, space, and race” (62), gains popularity. Even though the Deco ideal is introduced via Voilá Paris: La bata-clán, a Parisian “grand variety spectacle” that opened in Mexico City on February 12, 1925, this reconceptualization of the feminine body does not go counter to the revolutionary discourse celebrating indigenismo. After all, the new Mexican ideal was not predicated on skin color but focused on form instead. Art-deco mestizas were just as capable of performing modernity if they had the “right shape” and the “appropriate attitude” (72).
In contrast to the idealized urban female body, rural Mexico also had its preferred feminine form. Sluis denominates this pastoral space “camposcape,” and she uses this term to show how postrevolutionary Mexican elites refashioned “European discourses of modernity and aesthetics . . . [as] a distinctive form of orientalism that equated exotic landscapes of the countryside with indígenas, the past, and national identity” (18). By implementing a new term for this Edenic space, Sluis demonstrates how the feminine indigenous body is directly tied to the concept of the untamed land, which in turn establishes “acceptable forms of visual nudity” when applied to the healthy, pure indigenous female. But this nostalgic, Orientalizing ideation is challenged as Mexico City becomes the destination for rural migrants, as the reality of an Indian presence is unwelcome.
While the natural state of the indígena is celebrated, the nearly nude Deco bodies shatter “the rhetoric of idealized...