The Rhetoric of Fashion in Latin America

by Alba F. Aragón


This dissertation interrogates the role of fashion at representative junctures in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature and culture. It shows how fashion has helped to advance specific visions of cultural identity, historical change, and literary production and consumption. Chapter 1 surveys current understandings of dress, fashion, and related concepts, highlighting this dissertation’s questioning of fashion as a historically construed, rhetorically powerful discourse associated with Western modernity. It reflects on the importance of sartorial metaphors in literary theory and proposes that fashion is key to understanding the specificity of Latin American modernity. Chapter 2 surveys current scholarship on fashion in Latin America, reconsidering fashion’s role in works by Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi, Andrés Bello, Domingo Sarmiento, José Martí and other seminal nineteenth-century writers. Chapter 3 offers the first study of the women’s fashion magazine Elegancias (1911-1914), produced in Paris for Latin American consumption with Rubén Darío as literary editor. It investigates Darío’s involvement and analyzes four collaborations presently unpublished in book form, particularly Darío’s profile of the Argentine writer Delfina Bunge (whom he called “mademoiselle Verlaine”). It also analyzes Elegancia‘s inscription of Latin American modernismo within femininity and commodity culture. Chapter 4 shifts to Mexico, following the motif of the empty Indigenous dress in works by painter Frida Kahlo and writer Rosario Castellanos spanning the 1930s to the 1970s. Mexico’s Indigenous textile traditions offer a space against/outside fashion from which to subvert normative femininity, imagine ethnic filiations, and critique post-revolutionary Mexico’s forging of a mestizo national identity that incorporates Indigenous people as mere icons. Chapter 4 analyzes Alejo Carpentier’s major novels and his fashion chronicles in Venezuela’s El Nacional from the 1950s. It analyzes the representation of everyday dress as costume within the world as theatre metaphor and Carpentier’s Benjaminian sensibility in granting fashion allegorical meanings in relation to historical dialectics and transculturation. Throughout, the analysis observes how fashion exacerbates anxieties about Latin American divergence from metropolitan cultural models while its repertoire of images and discourses is used to fruitfully negotiate gender, race, and class as images of the body politic crystalize into images of the dressed body.

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