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Unravelling Lanzarote's traditional costume thread

By: Susanne Bernard
Photos: Susanne Bernard/ Lola Paltinger

Lanzarote, traditional clothing, folklore, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
A Lanzarotian folklore ensemble performs in traditional clothing.

Lanzarote, student, Ana Maria Perera, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
One of master tailor Ana Maria Perera's students hard at work creating a traditional costume.

Lanzarote, traditional outfit, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
A close-up showing the effort and detail which goes into making each individual traditional outfit.

Lanzarote, San Juan festival, traditional clothing, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
Lanzarotian celebrations at the San Juan festival showing off traditional clothing at its best.

Lanzarote, conservative, traditional farming clothing, San Juan, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
A girl wearing conservative Lanzarotian farming clothing at the San Juan festival in Haria.

Lanzarote, Canario, traditional, cachorra, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
A Canario wearing the traditional 'cachorra'.

Lanzarote, hand-made rucksack, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
An example of a hand-made rucksack popular with farmers and Canarios.

Lanzarote, customary male undergarments, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
Some of the island´s customary male undergarments.

Lanzarote, dolls, traditional clothing, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
Even dolls are adorned in traditional Lanzarotian clothing.

Lanzarote, dirndl, Lola Paltinger, Munich, 37° 37degrees, Island magazine
The dirndl has been given a new twist by Munich designer Lola Paltinger.

10/01/2012 - Anyone who has been to a fiesta on Lanzarote and watched all the different traditional dancers proudly circling in their marvellous costumes will, like us, have wondered about the origins of these costumes and what the true, traditional Lanzarotian attire really looks like. Just as Lanzarote 37º was embarking on an in-depth investigation of the topic, timely news came in of a course in traditional costume-making. Who better to explain what goes into a traditional Lanzarotian costume, therefore, than someone who teaches the subject?


So we set off for the Casa Ajei in San Bartolomé, where master tailor Ana María Perera gives two three-hour lessons a week on the subject of traditional costume-making to around twenty students.
Ana's courses are extremely popular and are now taking place for the third year in a row, with demand increasing every year. With the surprisingly high number of younger women attending the courses, there is clear evidence of the Lanzaroteños' growing interest in preserving their culture and traditions. There are a number of clubs and societies on the island dedicated to this preservation of local customs and the search for common roots. In sports clubs, music and costume societies, workshops and interest groups, people are busy keeping up and handing down the old crafts, and trying to rescue the traditional characteristics of the island for future generations. Others may pass on knowledge about keeping cochinilla lice and how to extract powder from them to make dye, or teach the art of weaving baskets and making hats with palm leaves. They may teach how to play the timple, or do "lucha canaria", the traditional Lanzarotian form of wrestling, or "Juego de Palo", the sport of stick fighting. However, Ana's students set to work with needle and thread to rediscover the dress-making skills of their ancestors.

As they sit around a large table designing patterns, cutting fabric, crocheting cords and buttons and hand-sewing hemstitches and button-holes, we ask Ana what a Lanzarotian costume actually ought to look like.

By way of an answer, the teacher kindly shows us some of her students' work. There are skirts with artistic hand-sewn pleats, delicate batiste pinafores with pretty hems, impressive brocaded waistcoats with braiding and piping, short linen men's trousers which are slightly reminiscent of underwear, and voluminous petticoats in all their secret magnificence. All the items exude a love of detail and hours of handiwork - yet of a Lanzarotian costume as such there remains no sign. Ana too seems somehow reluctant to give us a precise answer. Instead, she lends us some literature on the topic of traditional Canarian clothing and recommends a book called "Las Indumentarias de Lanzarote", a tome of some 600 pages, which leads us to suspect that our subject is perhaps not quite as straightforward as we thought.

During our research we were reminded again that for the people of the Canaries just as elsewhere, the purpose of clothes was primarily to protect the body. The Majos and the Majas, who were the early inhabitants of Lanzarote, would doubtless have worn similar clothing to the people on the African mainland. The material would have depended on the climate and on their activity, and so they wrapped themselves up in pelts and furs, skins, feathers, linen and wool – whatever was available and practical.

The urge to dress up, or to indicate a certain intent or tribe membership by wearing a costume and other possibly uncomfortable fashion accessories, was something which only came later, as conquerors, explorers and merchants arrived on the Canaries with their ships. They went about in their usual "costumes", and the indigenous people gradually adopted these styles, beginning to use their clothing to give off certain signals, just like the conquerors and invaders. These could be of a magical, religious, ethnic or purely aesthetic nature, and would serve to indicate class status or rank, or be worn simply to outdo a rival in fashion.

Traditional costume is just clothing after all, and its appearance reflects the circumstances of the wearer, just as clothes do today. The idea of a traditional outfit is something we probably associate mainly with events like morris dancing outside quaint pubs. On the other hand, what about the punk rocker dressed all in black, with his piercings and body art, or the 17-year-old girl with her bare navel, low rise trousers and lower back tattoo? Aren’t they wearing costumes to signify group identity, just like the foreigners and invaders from all over the globe who "infected" the Canaries with their ideas of fashion a few hundred years ago? It may  not be the first thing that springs to most people’s minds when they see them, yet upon closer consideration we realise that they are actually a real part of the reality of fashion on the Canaries. Today, the Lanzaroteños have their own take on the fashions of strangers, just as they did a hundred years ago. Like them also, it is perhaps not always to their best advantage.

Imagine how "Spanish" the invaders' tight knee breeches (“haut-de-chasse”) must have seemed to the Lanzaroteños at a time when they had only recently progressed from wearing tunics to knee-length woollen or perhaps cotton smocks. After all, the introduction of breeches was the fashion revolution of the first millennium on the European mainland, decried at the time by the nobility and ruling classes as most unseemly and unworthy of their status.

Exactly what the early Lanzaroteño dressed in is unclear. What we do know, is that over the centuries the costumes worn by the invaders and conquerors of Lanzarote, and of course by their ladies too, made a powerful impression on the islanders, and anyone who had the means to do so would copy the fashions of the European nobility and bourgeoisie.

There was no chance in those days of anything like the "grunge" look catching on, where people deliberately dress grubbily and unattractively in an effort to be different. Most of the islanders had been going around in grubby, smelly peasant rags for quite long enough. The conquerors in their fancy leggings and their lady-folk dressed to the nines in heavy robes and stunning headgear were a welcome sight. This was the way everyone now wanted to dress. This was the way to make an impression. Thus, albeit somewhat belatedly, the simple Canarian people began to copy the attire of the gentry and bourgeoisie, just like everyone else in Europe. It was at some point during this time that the Canarian costume must have been born.

Those who could afford it would use expensive oriental fabrics, at least for clothes for special occasions - silk, cotton or muslin. For keeping up appearances on an everyday basis, cotton and wool were used. The more material that was used for the robe or coat, the more elaborate its style, colour and pattern, and the easier it then was for the wearers to set themselves apart from the masses and to identify their own kind.

However, the rich and powerful reacted strongly against the hoi polloi dressing up like them, and attempted to maintain their uniqueness in terms of appearance and dress through the imposition of bans and regulations - all to no avail. In today's modern democracies it is almost impossible to imagine anyone complying with a ban on clothes of a certain colour - over time, for example, the clergy has not only lost its sole right to wear purple but now has difficulty in enforcing a rule that says women should cover their heads in church. Gone are the days when the poor would emulate the fashions of the wealthy. Today the rich go out in torn trousers while the fashion icons of the younger generation cultivate a look inspired by something in between Tokyo and the Bronx, and singers grace the stage in hot pants and bras.

The wheel of fashion turns very quickly nowadays, and it is perfectly possible that tomorrow we will all be going around wearing striped pyjamas, just because Tom Cruise or some other megastar accidentally got drunk and went shopping dressed like that. You can already get the shoes to match in the shops. Back to the point, however: to our exploration of the Lanzarotian costume through the ages. As we have seen, it is clear that the "fashion" of the "primitive" original inhabitants of the Canaries changed significantly for the first time around the end of the time of the Norman invasions in Europe. At the end of the Middle Ages the Majos began slowly but surely to move away from clothes made of animal pelts. The "in" thing now was what the ladies and gentlemen on the mainland were wearing. At first it was the dress code of the French Bourbon court they admired, with a little Italian finesse thrown in, and in the mid-15th century huge Moorish influences were added.

In contrast to the other Canary Islands, fashion on Lanzarote was heavily influenced by the African slaves who were held and traded there in vast numbers, sometimes making up three quarters of the population or more. The Muslims among them displayed their religious affiliation with their turban or fez, and their scimitar and tunic, which was all considered rather chic by some Lanzaroteños, who adopted some of the details.  This influence remained on Lanzarote longer than it did on the Spanish mainland, where Philip III finally expelled all Muslim believers from Spain at the beginning of the 17th century. Incidentally, in those days the men were much more likely to pinch ideas from the foreigners than the women, who retained (or were forced to) their traditional clothing for much longer. Spanish fashion at the time was characterised largely by a large variety of capes (or "mantos"), often worn by women over their heads, and tippets ("capas") for the men. During the 16th and 17th centuries there were more and more foreign influences arriving on Lanzarote, and men and women alike absorbed the fashions coming in from other parts of the world, be it from England, France or Spain. Then, at the beginning of the 18th century, the Bourbons entered the Spanish court, bringing French fashions to Spain with great verve. At court, the men were now wearing the musketeer's tunic, a type of topcoat, and tights (or leggings, as we would probably call them today), and the women dressed in long, voluminous skirts and showed off their narrow waistlines.


French fashion was considered to be very stylish, and the Spanish were happy to emulate their Francophile king, apart from one or two items they clung onto - the wide-brimmed sombrero and the long tunics they had grown so fond of. King Charles III, however, considered these to be outdated relics and decreed that the French tricorn hat and short coats should be worn. Transgressors faced the threat of a fine or a spell in the dungeons. The idea was supposedly that this new style of clothing would prevent criminals from concealing what they were up to beneath their garb. In fact, Charles III's real aim in banning clothes seen as old-fashioned in the rest of Europe, was to give the impression of social progress. Many Spanish nobles adapted to the new situation, others however, clung all the more bitterly to the old ways, which they demonstrated through their choice of attire. After 13 days of the clothing ban, the anger of people in Madrid was finally vented in the Esquilache riots ("Motín Esquilache"), which spread across the entire country and involved an estimated 50,000 rioters in a protest against the new clothing law being imposed by the Marquis of Esquilache on behalf of his king. "Muera Esquilache!" (Esquilache die!) and "Muera el mal gobierno!" (Let the bad government die!) were the chants from the crowds and Espquilache was driven out of the country and the king was forced to flee temporarily to Aranjuez, 40 kilometres away. The rich on Lanzarote also insisted on their right to wear their hats and long capes, at times even more vehemently than the Spaniards on the peninsula. On both the peninsula and on Lanzarote the ban had the same effect: for the first time, the people were now self-confidently asserting their right to uphold their traditions.

However, the influences of "globalisation" and encroaching industrialisation (the traffic of goods between the islands and the continents of Europe and Africa amounted to nothing less) continued on their inexorable course. In the 17th century, Lanzarote was prospering as a result of the trade in saltwort (barilla), brandy, cochinilla, onions, potatoes, wine and fish. Merchants arrived in Arrecife from England, Portugal, Spain and Africa and settled there, inspiring a cheerful, colourful blend of fashions in the population which raised a few eyebrows among certain English and Spanish traders. This diversity was to be lost during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. Fabrics were suddenly being machine-woven, and off the peg clothes became readily available in every size and style. Regional differences in fashion disappeared. The newspapers informed people what was "in", and the latest items were imported from the fashion centres of England and France. By the mid-20th century there were no longer any hand-made fabrics, and, with the exception of a few "old-fashioned" older folk, the Lanzaroteños were wearing "modern" styles.

Traditional Lanzarotian costume today is a marriage of references from all kinds of eras, primarily from the fashion of the late Georgian period, when wide ankle-length skirts and narrow-waisted tops were popular. The bonnet which would normally go with it only survived in the rustic version of the costume - the more "refined" costume prefers a hat worn with a headscarf, which actually goes back to a much earlier fashion. The smart costume for men recalls fashions from even longer ago, such as the short trousers of the 15th century, and the men's hats are clearly reminiscent of the French three-cornered hat. In other words, every detail of each costume reveals influences from many eras. It is a colourful blend, borne by a "romantic" idea of tradition: the costume is in fact no less than the revisiting and reuniting of past fashions in a single outfit. And if traditions and craft are alive, then new elements can and should be incorporated. Look at the Scottish designer Howie Nicholsby for instance who is famous for his new-age kilt designs which have been worn by celebrities such as Vin Diesel at the MTV Awards, or Sean Connery who was caught wearing one too. High-street fashion designers have also been known to take their inspiration from the age-old traditional clothes, with the highlight of Tommy Hilfiger’s spring/summer 2010 collection sporting kilts of all shapes and sizes, from leather kilts to tartan patterns. Jean-Paul Gaultier has also drawn inspiration from these patterns and incorporated them into his high-street fashion designs, and in Ireland designers such as Shauna Shiels and Eileen Plater have thrown the traditional Irish dancing costume into the future with their designs and use of crochet and fine detail. Another example of this is the Munich designer Lola Paltinger who is well-known for her brash dirndl designs, which are popular with Munich's in-crowd but "still" snubbed by the ordinary people... ring any bells? Her designs have been worn by none other than Paris Hilton, Salma Hayek, Kim Kardashian and Barbie herself. It is all a question of taste!

Sources and photos:
Las Indumentarias De Lanzarote by Ricardo Reguera Ramírez, 2006,
ISBN 978-84-690-4397-4.
Las Indumentarias Tradicionales De Canarias, Juan de la Cruz, 2002,
ISBN 84-7926-388-1.
Vestimenta Tradicional de Lanzarote en los siglos XVIII y XIX,
Published by the Cabildo Lanzarote with the cooperation of the Asociación Coros y Danzas Arrecife.
ISBN 84-87021-82-4.

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