Looking Good! Indios and Mestizos, ca. 1830

Published March 26, 2018, 12:05 AM


By Dr. Jaime C. Laya

I was all set to blow my life savings—all $2,500—at John Howell’s Books off Union Square in San Francisco. I was then a graduate student on scholarship and my target was an album of watercolors described as being by Damián Domingo (1796-1834), one of the earliest homegrown painters known by name. Fortunately for my pocket it had already been reserved by Carlos Quirino, then National Library director.

Mestiza by Damian Domingo
Mestiza by Damian Domingo

It’s one of at least three hereabouts, all privately owned and probably in bank vaults. Thanks to modern technology, another Damián album is available for inspection. Chicago’s Newberry Library has one and has posted on its website high-resolution photos available to anyone with an internet connection. The album contains 30 watercolors, each signed “Damián Domingo pinxit.”

Don Damián’s drawings are fascinating as probably the earliest depictions of how our indio, Chinóy, and tisóy ancestors dressed.  No Caucasians were drawn presumably because their attire was familiar to the owner and to whomever he wanted to show the drawings.

Of course the elite dressed better. Their clothes were of expensive silk and piña, fit better, and had elaborate embroidery. They sported top hats, were shod, and flaunted gold rosaries or tamburín necklaces, combs, etc.  Working people had utilitarian and loose cotton and abaca clothes, wore salakót or a cloth (putong) simply tied (nothing like an Indian turban) or a wide sombrero, went around barefoot, and counted Aba Guinoóng María with wood beads.

A Well-Off Indio by Damian Domingo
A Well-Off Indio by Damian Domingo

Everyone liked colorful clothes. Elite men strutted in joyfully striped piña shirts untucked at the waist above pajama-like trousers loosely cut and sewn straight to the ankle but with elaborately embroidered hems. Officials wore short jackets (one in green with gold stars) on top of untucked shirts. Socks seemed to be unknown and instead of shoes, footwear was corchos—hard-soled and heeled slippers apparently made of velvet, often with jeweled buckles. Men wore jewelry, mostly waist-long coral and/or gold rosaries modestly tucked into their shirts or scapulars also of gold or cloth embroidered in gold thread.  A dandy had a neckerchief, a coral rosary or tamburín tied midlength with a ribbon and a thin pigtail. Large and colorful umbrellas were evidently a final flourish.

The so-called “Maria Clara” costume with voluminous striped skirts and wide sleeves that ended mid-arm came into fashion in the 1870s and later.  The early 19th century version had wrist-long tight sleeves with a cuff and skirts were narrow with colorful checkerboard patterns.  The wearer’s curves were coyly straightened by an overskirt (tapis) tucked at the waist.  The tapis was of expensive silk and was a status symbol.

Above-waist curves were unsuccessfully disguised with a triangular shawl (pañuelo) that bears no resemblance to the starched and elaborately folded version of pre-war years.

Ladies wore their hair in a bun embellished with a gold-and-tortoise-shell comb and/or a cloth band or a rolled veil.  Waist-long rosaries with a cross, medallion or the miniature of a saint were de rigueur, as were earrings, multiple rings, and pins.  “If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”

Notes:  (a) Damián Domingo (1796-1834) was a Chinese mestizo Tondo resident.  He founded an art school in 1821 and later became Director of the Academia de Dibujos organized in 1823 by the Real Sociedad Económica de los Amigos del Pais; (b) The Newberry Library album (painted ca. 1830) is entitled Coleccion de Trages de Manila tanto antiguos como modernos de toda clase de Indios, dispuesta por D. Rafael David Babon y dibujado por D. Damian Domingo Director de la Academia de Dibjuos de la Real Sociedad de Manila; (c) D. Rafael David Babon (actually Baboom) was a Catholic Armenian textile trader and manufacturer from Calcutta who settled in Manila.  He established the Factoria de Baboom in Binondo engaged in the manufacture, import and export of textiles; and (d) The tamburín is a Spanish colonial period jewel.  It evolved from a rosary that had 50 “Hail Mary” and five or six larger “Our Father” beads.  Its pendant could be a cross, a medallion with a relic, or a miniature of a saint or religious scene.  People were shorter and what was then a waist-length necklace now ends mid-torso.


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