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Lady Violette

The Romantic Lifestyle

ORIGINS and ASSIMILATION – Understanding the History of the Manton de Manila / The Spanish Shawl / The Embroidered Silk Piano Shawl

February 8th, 2024 by violette

These beautiful embroidered silk shawls were originally produced as wearable works of art for fashionable women and later became popular for Flamenco dancing.  They were originally made in Canton, China, but they were produced specifically for the export market. Chinese women did not wear shawls of this type. The shawls were taken by ship to Manila and from there by the Manila galleons to both North and South America where they were sold to and worn by wealthy fashionable women. This is why they acquired the name Manton de Manila. The word Manton simply means shawl in Spanish, so Manton de Manila means shawl from Manila. Interestingly the shawls were made in China and only passed through Manila on their export journey but, because the ships on which the traveled were known as the Manila Galleons, they acquired the name Manton de Manila. I assume some were purchased and worn by some women in the Philippines who could afford them, but the destination was initially the Americas and later on Europe. //

Manila became the seat of the colonial government of Spain when it gained sovereignty over the Philippine Islands in 1565. The period from 1565 – 1898 is known as the Spanish colonial period. Under Spain, Manila became the colonial entrepôt ( transportation port) in the Far East. The seat of the Spanish government was situated within the fortified walls of Old Manila. The walls were constructed to keep out invading Chinese pirates and protect the city from native uprisings. The city became the center of trade between Manila and Acapulco, which lasted for three centuries and brought goods from Southeast Asia to the Americas and vice versa. The exporters got paid in silver ingots when they sold their valuable cargos in Acapulco so it was a very lucrative enterprise. 

This description of a shawl exhibited in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, beautifully illustrates the journey of one such shawl. The caption on the display reads: “ A silk shawl embroidered with birds, butterflies, vines and flowers in colored silk thread is exhibited. From Canton, China. They would have been imported from China to the Philippines, then brought by Manila Galleons to Acapulco and shipped overland on the Camino Real from Mexico City through Chihuahua to New Mexico. The shawl exhibited here belonged to a prominent New Mexico woman in the early 19th century.” 

Over time the beautiful embroidered silk shawls from China by way of Manila made their way across the Americas to Europe where they were immediately popular with women of fashion in court and high society. They came from China via the Manila galleons, via the Americas and finally to Spain and the rest of Europe. 

These exquisite high quality embroidered shawls became fashionable with European women during the mid 19th century and were a popular garment worn in portrait paintings of society ladies and artists . They could be seen worn in court and to the theater and at social events by the great beauties of the time. Here are links to a few of the famous paintings. 




Its incorporation into the European feminine wardrobe arrived after a long journey in time starting off in China, where the material and characteristic styles of embroidery originated and where the original shawls were made, which were then taken to Manila and from there to the Americas and finally, from the Americas to Europe. American and European women had influence over the evolution of the shawl designs. When initially produced in Canton, China the shawls were decorated with oriental scenes and distinctly Asian motifs. The oldest shawls exhibit Chinese scenes and landscapes, pagodas and Chinese people in Chinese dress. The flowers, foliage, animals, birds, insects and plants depicted are Asian. An interesting example was the use of toads who were a symbol of good luck in China but had other connotations in America and Europe! The shawls with toads sitting in all four corners were hard to sell to fashionable South and North American ladies. The women of Mexico City and San Francisco wanted colorful shawls and their preferred embroidery designs featured flowers, butterflies, colorful birds, and fruits. These ladies also discovered that long swinging fringe, like beautiful feminine long hair, was a charming and seductive feature of the shawls and they demanded longer and longer fringe. Yucky toads, snakes and other reptiles were eliminated from the embroidery designs. Flowers, butterflies and colorful birds came to dominate the designs and the fringe and elaborate macrame lattice around the outer edges grew to longer and more elaborate proportions to cater to their desires. 

By the time they got to Spain the shawls had become extremely colorful and elaborate with long exotic fringe. Flamenco dancers began incorporating them into their dances. They became so popular in Spain during the 19th century that they became a necessary accessory to the Spanish woman’s dress. That is why they are often referred to now as Embroidered Spanish Shawls. The  incorporation and assimilation of these beautiful shawls originally imported from China into the Spanish culture was so effective in the 19th Century that is has continued until the present day. 

The popularity and demand for colorful embroidered silk shawls in Spain was so great by this time that the labor intensive hand embroidered shawls produced in Canton and imported to Europe could not fully meet the demand. The prices for the antique Cantonese shawls were also beyond the budgets of every Spanish woman, yet every woman wanted at least one! They were so popular that they eventually evolved to become a bonafide element of the Spanish woman’s national costume. 

Thus enterprising Spaniards inspired by the shawls from China started to produce their own versions in Spain and added their own touches and interpretations to the embroidery designs. By now embroidered shawls were part of the Spanish woman’s regular wardrobe as well as the national costume. An experienced eye can tell which shawls were made in Canton and which in Spain by examining the types of flowers and other elements in the design. The Spanish produced shawls often feature flowers from Spain versus flowers from China. For example camellias from China morphed into roses from Spain. At the same time the Chinese embroideresses incorporated European elements into their designs to appeal to the European market. Their camellias became roses and their wisteria vines became grape vines with bunches of grapes as well as wisteria flowers hanging from the same vines. The embroidery decorating the shawls sometimes became a fanciful fusion of East and West. Now both Chinese and Spanish antique Manton’s exist and both are very beautiful and desirable. 

These shawls produced in Spain were technically actual Spanish mantons – Spanish shawls made in Spain for the Spanish market. They are still being produced as scarves and shawls for modern fashion and as shawls for Flamenco dancing. Specialty shops in Spain sell these beautiful textiles in many forms from wearable scarves, shawls and embroidered modern dresses to items for home decor such as pillows, curtains, table covers and upholstery. These shops carry a wide range of products descending from the original Mantons de Manila from modern machine embroidered versions, modern hand embroidered versions produced in Spanish specialty workshops, rare antique shawls – actual antique Mantons de Manila, and specialty shawls produced for the professional Flamenco dance community. Some of them also run a rental service in which they rent out valuable rare Antique Mantons de Manila for use on movie sets, in period dramas and for special events. They can be easily found by visiting shops selling supplies for Flamenco dancers. 

The shawls shown in this post are from my personal collection of antique mantons de Manila.

Rare and beautiful historic clothing and accessories are for sale in my online shops. If you see something on this blog that you are interested in buying, but do not find it for sale in my shops message me on Etsy or Ebay and I will get back to you about availability. I check messages daily and can always prepare a special listing for you if you do not find it already listed in the shops.

Ebay: ladyviolettedecourcy

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