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The signs of color: Women’s dress and racial relations in Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, ca 1750–1815

by Silvia Hunold Lara

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The majority of the studies on aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture are still in the incipient stage, often closer to a “folkloric” than historic approach, and showing an exasperating indifference towards the effects of time and space, or even towards the citation of sources. Even so, the relatively scarce amount of data gathered already permits one to conclude that the visual language of dress and articles of personal use possessed other readings and significations for the Africans and African descendants in colonial Brazil. To escape from the traps set by legislative texts and reports of priests and travelers which were examined here, and which only give insight into the disputes between colonial authorities and seignorial interests, it is necessary to seek sources which might shed more light on the other languages of dress. Distant from the master’s symbology of power and morality, this other language spoke of the religious life, and of the love, desires and hopes of men and women who forged different identities in Brazil and in slavery. Under the sign of color, and although divided in the eyes of whites between luxury and licentiousness, these black women unveil before us a vivid, complex world rarely addressed by Brazilian historiography on the colonial period—a world that still needs to be deciphered.

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