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Visualizing Difference: The Rhetoric of Clothing in Colonial Spanish America

by Mariselle Meléndez


Clothing has played a vital role in the process of identity construction of different ethnic and racial groups. Corporeal decorations, accessories, jewelry, costume, and types of fabrics, for example, have been historically used by diverse social groups to distinguish themselves and visually express particular cultural identities. Clothing has also constituted a rhetorical vehicle to establish power relationships, social categorizations, and degrees of civilization among societies. As Pierre Bourdieu (1984: 7) suggests, systems of domination can find expression in the preferences for certain kind of clothing by fulfilling “a social function of legitimating social differences.” In the case of colonial Spanish America, the absence or lack of clothing functioned as a determinant factor to classify and categorize others. Difference was visually and discursively constructed through the rhetoric of clothing.

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