Master tailor Diego de Freyle’s 1583 manual, Geometria y traça para el oficio de los sastres (Geometry and patterns for the trade of tailoring), gives us a unique vantage point to consider the history of dress.
We might ask ourselves: what role did tailor’s manuals take during Freyle’s time? And what might the patterns in Freyle’s book suggest about who dresses in what garments?
Freyle’s book is the second known published tailoring manual in Spain. From Juan de Alcega (1580) to Juan de Albayzeta (1720), Spanish master tailors penned treatises on their trade with the language and aesthetics of geometry coloring their manuals. The image above, a page from Freyle’s manual, shows a tailor’s workshop. The tailor in the middle holds a technical drawing instrument and a Spanish yard: la vara. Similar in length to a yard, Spain declared “the rod” as its official measuring unit in the 16th century.1
The patterns in this tailoring manual specify the number of varas needed for each garment, helping tailors to buy the exact amount of fabric from merchants. Once the fabric was acquired, tailors could follow a pattern’s instructions and construct a garment. The oblong format of this book helped keep the book wide open, much more easily than a tightly bound octavo book.2
And in a letter to the Count of Orgaz, de Freyle explains how clients also benefit from the patterns in his manual. Clients could avoid getting ripped off by knowing the cut of the garment they asked for and how much fabric is needed to make it.
Tailors ensured a garment’s quality by using a pattern as they could easily arrange a garment in pieces. And not only did Freyle suggest how to cut and assemble garments, but he also outlined best practices in the workshop. Freyle urged master tailors to be truthful to their workers and avoid overworking them. Otherwise, garment quality decreases and the client may refuse to pay for the product and frequent another shop out of dissatisfaction. As for workshop conduct, Freyle wrote that tailors should sit with their backs straight on a stool with a height of half a vara, push needles outwards away from their nose and cheek, and refrain from telling stories as others dedicate their lives to that matter. It is clear that Freyle intended his manual to standardize the trade—in its practice and the behaviors expected of a tailor.3
However, Freyle’s contemporaries, as Alcega notes in his manual’s introduction, viewed tailor’s manuals as an exposé of trade secrets. Before the publication of tailor’s manuals, apprenticeships were the only way to gain knowledge of tailoring. Perhaps the demand for Spanish style across Europe explains his contemporaries’ concern. The Spanish Empire was at the height of power during the 16th and 17th centuries, the same time in which these tailor’s manuals circulated across Europe. Spanish cuts, such as round-cut cloaks and wide ruffs, came to be associated with worldly wealth and power. Thereby, Spanish tailors were at risk of losing a highly profitable market to foreign tailors with the circulation of manuals like Freyle’s.
We can also read the patterns in Freyle’s manual as a reflection of his time’s social hierarchies. The clothes we wear often carry symbolic meaning, communicating something about ourselves. Consider Freyle’s pattern above for a cape and doublet. It is intended for an educated or elderly man; in this instance, the cape and doublet are social markers of the wearer’s place in society based on education or age.
In the Americas, the Spanish were especially concerned with dress and power. Casta paintings, or “caste” paintings, attempted to catalog a racial taxonomy. In other words, categorize people based on race. This genre of painting depicted pure-blooded Spaniards at the top of the social order while racial admixture brought you lower. This is to say that the more European you were, the higher your social standing. The clothing the subjects in these paintings wore reflected these Spanish ideals; the Spanish don garments found in Freyle’s manual while the racially mixed subjects wore much less “luxurious” clothes. To put it simply, Spanish style was reserved for powered individuals. For example, Spanish sumptuary laws prohibited certain castes from wearing luxury goods such as pearls, gold, silk, or even Spanish dress.4 Freyle’s manual served his trade, though, and with it we can also see how the garments patterned in its pages took life on the other side of the Atlantic.
Freyle’s tailor’s manual allows us to see through the history of dress concerning the construction of garments. This sort of book is helpful for tracking the evolution and circulation of Spanish fashion across Europe and Latin America. We can also think about how garments, and the tools used to make them, manifested across time and space—that is, what kind of lives did these objects, these clothes and clothes-making tools, lead?
“Geometria y trazas pertenecientes al oficio de sastre por Juan de Albayzeta (1720),” vol. June (Modelo del mes. ciclo 2016, Museo del Traje, Madrid: Museo del Traje, 2016), 20, https://www.culturaydeporte.gob.es/mtraje/gl/dam/jcr:9fff6ea2-32a7-4336-a4e0-0eb37d625cfd/06-2016.pdf
Ruth de la Puerta Escribano, “Los tratados del Arte del vestido en la España Moderna,” Archivo Español de Arte 74, no. 293 (March 30, 2001): 45–65, https://doi.org/10.3989/aearte.2001.v74.i293.403.
- Freyle notes that different sized varas were used across the Iberian Peninsula. Andalucía, Castille, Extramadura, Portugal, and Valencía each had their own vara. For more on the vara as a unit of measurement, read Marcos A. Reyes-Martinez’s article “The Vara: A Standard of Length With a Not-So-Standard History.”
- Thank you to Caroline Duroselle-Melish for this insight.
- I relied on Ruth de la Puerta Escribano’s description here. Her article also gives historical context for Spanish tailor’s manuals from the 16th to 18th centuries.
- For more on the politics of clothing in colonial Latin America, read Rebecca Earle’s article, “Why Spanish colonial officials feared the power of clothing.”
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