Real Women - Fashion and Manners from the Rio of King João VI [1]

Larissa Sousa de Carvalho [2]

CARVALHO, Larissa Sousa de. Real Women - Fashion and Manners from the Rio of King João VI. 19&20, Rio de Janeiro, v. III, issue 4, October 2008. Available at: <>. [Português]

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1.       The exhibition “Real Women- Fashion and Manners from the Rio of King João VI” [Figure 1] set in Casa França-Brasil from may 27 to July 06 was organized through the Rio de Janeiro City Hall as a celebration of the 200 years of arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in Brazil (1808-2008). Cláudia Fares and Emília Duncan worked together as curators of this project and received help from the consultants Júlio Bandeira (art historian), Raul Lody (anthropologist) and João Braga (fashion historian), among other professionals involved.

2.       When translated to Portuguese, the title of the exhibition, “Real Women”, can be seen as a double meaning title. The “real” can be understood as either “royal”, as in the royal family that had recently come to the city, and “real”, as in the real women living in Rio around that same time. Both meanings are presented in different modules of the exhibition. Another module called “The Past in the Present” presents the origins of today's fashion, through readings and contemporary creations.

3.       Even though the showroom was not big, it was well used. It has to be noted that the Casa-Franca Brasil showroom transforms its space for every exhibition. They use MDF to divide the space and use it in a more dynamic way. In the case of “Real Women” it was no different, as could be seen in the small sections created to better fit the purpose of the exhibition. Take the front section of the module “Royal Women” and the back part of “Real Women” as reference: they recreated in those sections the inside space of a home in the beginning of the XIX century. Even though the use of MDF in the opening of the show was not friendly for people with special needs it created a dramatic atmosphere, thanks to the wooden stairs that could take the visitor to a higher place to better see the showroom space and also led to the entrance of the first module, entitled “Royal Theater”.

4.       In this first module there wasn't a set course (there were no pointing arrows or marks). The visitor could walk around freely and create his very own narrative, base on individual logic. And then, as if walking inside a circle, he was led to the next stage of the exhibition, “Royal Women”, and then would go to the right side, getting to know the “Real Women”, in the back of the showroom, and afterwards to the left side, visiting the third module, ending up in the hall where he started. The music played - both the popular kind and the kind played in royal halls - was present in all the sections of the show and helped establish the atmosphere, although the guides had to overcome the loud music to grab the visitor’s attention.

5.       The first experience of the visitor was a knee-high horizontal projection of old pictures, mainly of the sea. This sea - “A Sea of Worlds” - would confront images of a world that was left behind and a new found world (being those pictures of Botafogo, Corcovado, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and others). It is worth remembering that the city met by the royal court was full of Arab and African influences, and that with the opening of our ports, the European influences - English and French - overruled the others. Rio was also marked by slavery, slaves being responsible for two-thirds of its population.

6.       Down the stairs was the entrance to the “Royal Women” module, representing three queens: Queen Maria I, Queen Carlota Joaquina and Queen Leopoldina, telling he history of manners and fashion of their time through their own history (a 100 years gap between the born of the first one and the death of the last), a history with a common subject: the power held by all of them. And even though they were all women of the royalty, the real women were not forgotten in the exhibition.  In fact, it shows the spirit of that time reflected in the personality of each one of them through the clothes created for the show, with no intension of copying the originals, but with the only purpose of marking what was characteristic of them, as seen in “The Royal Opera”. [Figure 2]

7.       Take as reference Queen Maria I black dress, located on the right. It was used as a symbol of all her personal losses, the ones that eventually drove her crazy and to an eternal state of mourning. The pieces of Portuguese blue tiles on the hem of the dress are references to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, and the red heart on her chest indicates her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Carlota Joaquina`s dress, on the left, showed off all her fluff and eloquence. Being strongly influenced by her Spanish roots the dress was composed of red fans. Contrasting with the other two, Queen Leopoldina dress was more simple and lighter, composed of pastel colors. And because of her wisdom and of the journal where she used to write her feelings, her dress reminds off of rolls of written parchment, representing her soul: the hem is fluid, as if torn apart. According to her writings, her soul was also torn with the distance from her family, in Europe, with the unfaithfulness of her husband (the future King Pedro I) and the death of her son.

8.       Alongside with those dresses, created specifically for each queen, the exhibition also had recreations of other dresses, based on official portraits and paintings, those positioned behind each dress. A total of three dresses for Maria I (on the right), three for Carlota Joaquina (on the left side) and another four for Leopoldina (on the center). However, this segment of the exhibition, called “Royal Theater” [Figure 3] - organized in a “U” shape - proved to be confusing due to the fact that the dresses were not displayed on a chronological order, and there was no link or correspondence between them. It’s hard to tell if the 4 dresses of Queen Leopoldina were located on the center because she is considered to be more important in the historical context (she was the first Empress of Brazil) or because of the harmonization of the number of dresses, being that the others only had three, while she had four. It was easy for a distracted visitor to get disorientated, for he probably expected to see Carlota Joaquina`s dresses on the center, since she is considered to be a “woman of both times”, as could be read on the texts on the walls.

9.       Through the recreation of these dresses we are able to witness the political, economic and social changes of that time, as well as the changing fashion, clearly noticed on the dresses displayed. The dresses of Queen Maria I [Figure 4] represent all the luxury and exuberance of that time, indication of monarchy values, used to assert power and social distinction. Her first dress, of when she was young, is heavily structured with the use of a girdle and other structures under the skirt. It also has bouffant sleeves and a long and heavy train (light blue, because of her devotion to the Virgin Mary). Her second dress, of when she was already a queen, shows an excess of jewels, a sign of richness and power. It also showed a new kind of structure on the skirt called “paniers” that raised only the sides of the skirt. The sleeves are also different, composed of lacework following the French fashion of that time (prints were also fashionable). Her last gown is a clear statement of the political changes happening, even fashion wise. With the French revolution and the imminence of the guillotine the clothes acquired some sobriety, returning to a no print fabric and non-structured gowns (some pillows would be enough to give volume under the skirt)

10.    Carlota Joaquina [Figure 5] is first presented as an "infanta", dressed in a spring gown (pink and blue) greatly structured, with a corset and a “paniers” skirt. Her second dress is directly influenced by a model worn by Josephine Bonaparte of France, without any kind of structure: it had a high waist, and was flat all the way through the legs, ending on a train. Carlota's last gown displays one of her main hobbies: horseback riding. It is presented her mounting gown, composed of pants and a long sleeve shirt, tight around the arms (as if tailored for a man).

11.    And finally Queen Leopoldina’s dresses [Figure 6]. As previously said not three, but four dresses that reflect the calm period when they were worn, being of a mild nature and clearly inspired by Ancient Classic times, the Middle Ages and also by the Renaissance[3]. Therefore, the dressing code is more casual, with low heals, few ornaments around the neck and over the sleeves, modest jewels and hair flowing naturally. She used to wear light colors, like white and yellow,  the last one representative of her family (Hapsburgs).

12.    A bit hidden on the left side was “Sitting at the table” [Figure 7], a secondary section, irrelevant to the exhibition. Although linked to the theme of manners acquired with the court arrival, the visitor could only look at a certain distance and would go his on way very quickly, for he was not aloud to get closer to the table. Even the brochure of the show made no reference to this specific section.

13.    There was still the “Box of Memories” [Figure 8], the last section of the “Royal Women” module, which presented gowns and original ornaments (fans, hats, shoes, purses and others) more than 200 years old, lent by several European museums[4]. This collection surely improved the quality of the event, for those were true history evidence, correctly identified and stored. On the back wall there was a video that showed the evolution of clothes through the years.

14.    The entrance for the second module was located on the right side of the main hall. “Real Women” was composed of three sections: “Concealed Manners”, “Unveiled Manners” and “Revealing Fashion”. The first one could be split in two parts. “The Home” made clear the strong influence of eastern habits[5] in Rio's urban constructions, making use of screens made of wood strips called "muxarabi", thin enough to let the light in without menacing the indoor space privacy. With those they were able to recreate the atmosphere of a house in the colony [Figure 9], showing an interior design of no luxury with eastern influence on the furniture and everyday habits. It is also worth highlighting the performance happening inside the “house”, such as the mistress act, where she, wearing her night-gown (due to the heat) cross-stitches or reads a book while a slave combs her hair or serves her in other ways. Although the acting is a new thing in this kind of exhibition, this one didn't ask a lot of the actor, due to the slow-pace of life in the colony. So, as interesting as it was, it didn't grab the visitor's attention. The second half called “The Street - Hidden Shadows”, shows how women would go out to the streets covered in dark and heavy mantles. It is a clear influence of the cloth worn by Arab women, not only based on the look, but also based on its function: to protect the women from other people's eyes.

15.    On the same hall there were two different maps of Rio de Janeiro. One previous to the arrival of the royal court, and the other drawn 10 years later. The first map (from 1808) shows a city encrusted among four mountains (Castelo and Santo Antônio - both demolished - and São Bento and Conceição - still up). The second map (1818) shows the interventions the city had to go through in order to be modernized and structured to receive the 15000 people due to arrive with the Portuguese court. It was also displayed a recreation of the Primeiro de Março Street (once Straight Street) and her everyday trading activities.

16.    The “Unveiled Manners” section showed the “Semi dressed Negress” [Figure 10], for they were the only women seen in the outdoors until this moment. And these slaves would dress in, simple cotton clothing, tainted or not, loosened up to better move their body while fulfilling their duties. The clothes they usually got were second-handed and bigger then their bodies, so they would tie the ends to better adjust it.

17.    The last section of this module, “Revealing Fashion” tried to show the changes occurred thanks to the contact with Europeans, the transition from shadows to light, mainly through fashion and manners (“The transformed city” - the "muxarabis" are forbidden, and the use of mantles extinguished). “Caucasian Rising” shows how white women start copying the European fashion in order to look more civilized, transforming their salves in a image of their social status, as shown in “Black Dolls” [Figure 11], for they were ornamented like dolls accordingly to the owner. This section embraces other two segments, “Multicultural Negress” and “Black Jewels”, showing how, paid and free slaves improvised their clothes thanks to the overlaying of different dresses and colorful or printed pieces of fabric. Next we were delighted to see a display of the only items a slave could own, her jewelry [Figure 12]. The items displayed could only be seen thanks to the original jewels lent form the Carlos Costa Pinto Museum, of Salvador. The display added value to the exhibition, for you could actually see different kinds of “negro jewels” (made of gold and silver). It is worth noting that these accessories still have a strong connection to the African culture (lots of amulets and orixá representations) while manufactured in the Portuguese fashion.

18.    On the left side of the room we can finally enter the third module of the exhibition (“The Past in the Present”), divided in three segments: “ReDebret” is the first, and shows a new take on this artist work, displaying dresses inspired on his paintings and a multimedia screen with a recorded content simulating how the past, portrayed by Debret, would look in the modern world, making use of modern women (Nós do Morro theater group and other actors) dressed in those dresses. “Anthropological parade” [Figure 13] seeks in the past the origins of yesterday's fashion still present to this day, presenting dresses created by contemporary designers. It is a new take on this fashion heritage, and it is asked of the visitor to walk down the catwalk and look in the mirror on the back trying to see himself as part of all the changes happening so far. “The Monarchy Triumphs and the Samba Schools” is the last segment and relates the allegoric cars to the ornamented cars used on the Monarchy Triumphs (a traditional European monarchy celebration) used when the kings entered the city. Hence it follows that “it all ends up in Samba in Brazil”, according to a saying used on the country. With the exhibition it was no different, but let's not judge it in the wrong way, because the use of the saying isn't pretentious, just as poetic as the use on this section.

19.    Some final notes on the exhibition: The curators paid attention to the smallest details - the exhibition texts hanging on clothe-hangers, relating to the show context - the atmosphere was also satisfying, making use of decoration, music, projections on the ceiling of the main hall (images related to the life of the queens) and other elements. Meanwhile the shipping of the exhibition's catalogues could have been better planned. The show opened in May and was set to last two months, but the catalogues wouldn't be available until August, after the closing date of the exhibition, disappointing some visitors (the organization could have just sent to the publisher the iconographic research and other necessary information previously, sending the pictures of the exhibition latter, for many of the pieces were manufactured exclusively for the show and couldn't have been photographed before). On the other hand, the brochures, pamphlets and almanacs distributed were of great help and elucidating. The same goes to the exhibition: coherent and concerned with the construction of a logical narrative capable of making clear all the points proposed.

English version by Eduardo da Costa Piquet


[1]This review, now published by the magazine 19&20, is a revised version of the paper presented on the first semester of 2008 at the History of Brazilian Art II class, thought by professor Camila Dazzi from the History of Art Department of UERJ (Rio de Janeiro State University).

[2] Larissa Sousa de Carvalho is a 5th term Baccalaureate of History of Art student in UERJ.

[3] The dressing code of the XVII century is marked by the transition of the Spanish fashion (present in the majority of European countries) to the French fashion. Since 1650, France became the fashion reference in Europe, transforming the Spanish structured, tight and embodied gown into light, natural, French dresses. It is interesting to note that around 1760 the diggings in Greece inspired the return of the Ancient Classic style, introducing a new fashion in Europe, called á Grécque. In the turmoil period of the French Revolution, the ancient influences were highly valued, because of the simplicity they inspired on dresses. In the case of Queen Leopoldina, this influence can be seen in the looseness of the dress, the buff on the sleeves (Renaissance inspired) and the lacework on the neckline.

[4] Original jewels lent by the National Museum of Apparel and Fashion of Lisbon, the Museum of Apparel of Madrid and by the Museum of Vienna. The choice of these museums is due to the fact that the queens were born in those cities.

[5] In 711 he muslins crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and invaded the Iberian Peninsula enjoying the richness of the new territory and preaching their religion (Islamism). They occupied the territory for nearly 800 years, influencing great part of the population, thus leaving a mark on their culture. After the Age of Discovery, Portugal transfers to the colony the traces of eastern influence present in their culture. These influences developed in Brasil thanks to the African and Asian habits, original of other Portuguese colonies, linked through the slave market.