French Fashion and Crisis of Spanish National Identity in Galdós’s La de Bringas


Marina Cuzovic-Severn

University of Alaska Fairbanks



Since the Middle Ages, female attraction to fashion and sartorial goods has been disparaged by male critics and described as vanity and superficiality that negatively affected the moral and domestic life of women (1). Dorota Heneghan, in her article about fashion and modernity, offers a distinct perspective on the importance of clothing and fashion in Galdós’s novels, focusing on La de Bringas (1884). Heneghan discusses the importance of fashion for the creation of a modern female persona that challenges the nineteenth-century image of ángel del hogar. She depicts fashion in La de Bringas not only as a commodity fetish or private vice, as previously described by critics such as Akiko Tsuchiya, Bridget Aldaraca and Paul Smith, but as a tool for literary construction of gender:

Rosalía’s passion for finery and inordinate love for sartorial goods have traditionally been interpreted as evidence of egotism, social ambition, and/or the cause of her moral decline. More recently, critics have explained the protagonist’s penchant for self-adornment as an expression of her repressed sexuality (Tsuchiya), a manifestation of her secretly experienced emancipation from her husband’s tutelage (Aldaraca “Revolution of 1868”), and as a sign of her alienation from male society (Smith). Although these interpretations are enlightening, nevertheless, by reducing the protagonist’s fascination with clothing to a private vice and the meaning of her elegant outfits to a commodity fetish, such views tend to diminish fashion’s significance in Galdós’ literary construction of the cultural image of gender. (Heneghan 3)

In her recently published book about fashion in Galdós, Pardo Bazán and Picón, Heneghan further develops her argument and states that fashion is a key feature of modernity that helps bring to light the problematic formation of modern femininity and masculinity in Galdós’s novels: “Through his portrayals of the fashion-oriented characters’ burning desire to advance the past and look modern and, at the same time, their lack of initiative and/or opportunity to break away from the dominant gender constructs, Galdós denounced Spain’s irregular (at times more apparent than real) progress toward modernity” (Striking 13).

While I acknowledge and embrace Heneghan’s innovative approach to a more substantial analysis of fashion in Galdós’ novel, I propose a discussion of French fashion in La de Bringas not only as Galdós’ key feature for portrayal of (stifled) progress toward modernity, but as a bitter acknowledgment of crisis of the Spanish national identity. The solution of this crisis is impossible in the proposed form; the contemporary model of modernity for Spain was France, the old imperial rival, which culturally colonized Spain through afrancesamiento in the nineteenth century.

The complicated geopolitical relationship (2) that existed between these two nations since before the Napoleonic era is crucial in explaining non-acceptance of modernity in Spain. At the same time, the loss of the colonies and imperial power was a bitter reality for Spain at the end of the nineteenth century, which made the traditional national/imperial image impossible to maintain. This clash between inability to accept modernity and incapacity to maintain traditional values is personified in La de Bringas through two characters: the protagonist Rosalía de Bringas, and Manuel Pez, an influential bureaucrat and family friend. Their destinies symbolize the simultaneous failure of two national fictions in the novel—Spain cannot accept or reproduce the modernity of France (Rosalía), but it cannot rely on the traditional, romantic past either, because the time of glorious imperial masculinity is over (Pez) (3)—which only deepens the crisis of Spanish national identity.

In the following pages, I study fashion in La de Bringas as an expression of and commentary on the French cultural colonization of Spain through Rosalía and Pez. I demonstrate how French fashion contributes to the afrancesamiento of the Spanish nation, exemplified through Rosalía’s obsession with French garments, her willingness to do anything to procure them and use of French language among her friends. I also comment how French fashion affects Rosalía’s self-confidence, seemingly makes out of her a subject and helps her decolonize herself from domesticity and the patriarchal ideal of ángel del hogar, but how, eventually, excessive consumption increases her dependence on men. Finally, I discuss how colonization by French fashion and customs reveals the crisis of Spanish conventional/imperial masculinity through Pez’s lack of traditional values and passivity before the invasion of foreign trends.

Before entering the analysis of fashion in La de Bringas, I will ground my approach with a brief description of the geopolitical situation in Spain, and Europe, at the end of the nineteenth century, as well as explain afrancesamiento and changes in Spanish national fashion trends. This will clarify and justify the connection between French fashion in La de Bringas and the geopolitical context, as well as the unacceptable modernity and the crisis of national identity that I discuss.

History and Geopolitics

The nineteenth century was a period of substantial changes on the European political scene, especially at the turn of the century when “old” empires, including Spain, lost the majority of their overseas colonies and when “new” empires were being formed. Eric Hobsbawm explains this by commenting that the era between 1875-1914 was the period of a new type of empire—the colonial one—dominated by Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, the USA and Japan. The ancient surviving pre-industrial European empires of Spain and Portugal were the victims of this process, as their power declined, and loss of territories was rapid (67) (4).

According to several authors, (Hobsbawm, José Álvarez Junco, Balfour), the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century were the peak of European nationalism and imperial expansion. To maintain the illusion of imperial power, Spain’s ruling structures tried to preserve traditional values and national imagery, which sustained the status quo and led to xenophobia and stifled modernization of the country. Every influence that came from outside, especially France, was considered anti-Spanish and anti-traditional by conservatives: “Los modernizadores eran ‘extranjerizantes, antiespañoles, afrancesados’” (Álvarez Junco 116).

Consuelo Maqueda Abreu explains the geopolitical situation in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth century:

[L]a Europa de esta centuria basculó entre el afrancesamiento y la anglomanía, dos enfermedades que afectaron a los españoles y que Nipho critica, considerándolo como ‘enfermedad que ha quitado muchos espíritus’; pero es un europeo y posee una imagen de este continente como un triángulo perfecto: en un lado, Inglaterra; en el otro, Francia y en el centro, España, posiciones que les hacen, más tarde o más temprano, tener que luchar por la hegemonía. (143)

For Spain, the most important enemy in terms of the hegemony of its national identity was France (Álvarez Junco 248) (5). The influence of France on Spanish customs and common life in the nineteenth century, which was believed to corrupt the moral life of Spain, was known as afrancesamiento.

Luis Barbastro Gil explains that afrancesamiento is a political matter, which evidences “la fragilidad del sistema político español a comienzos del siglo XIX, la hegemonía política de Francia en el concierto internacional de esta época y en la propia política interior española” (8). The origin of the Francophobia “podría remontarse a las interminables guerras de los siglos XVI y XVII entre las dos grandes monarquías del mundo católico, los Habsburgo y los Valois/Borbones” (Álvarez Junco 122). The beginning of the afrancesamiento of Spain, according to Federico Suárez, was in the 1700s when the first Bourbon, Felipe V, came to the throne (44). The culmination of animosity against France was at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Independence War against Napoleon started, but this feeling remained throughout the century (6).

Jesús Torrecilla comments, when talking about Spanish realism, that “[c]omplaints against French cultural hegemony can be found everywhere in Spain at that time” (100). Galdós’s novels were a significant example of critique of afrancesamiento. He was one of the liberal writers, besides Pardo Bazán, Clarín, Pareda and Alarcón, who was hostile towards French realism. This hostility, explained by Torrecilla, is in some instances “justified by its immorality and absence of religious values, but also, and above all, because these authors perceive the new trend as a humiliating imposition of French cultural hegemony” (100). Galdós himself writes pejoratively about afrancesamiento of Spanish literature and culture as unnatural: “Ya desde principios del siglo pasado, la reforma de la etiqueta, la venida de los Borbones, la irrupción de la moda francesa, comenzaron a desnaturalizar nuestra aristocracia (“Observaciones” 165). His disapproval and critique of French literary and cultural models is also visible when he describes French novels as “peste nacida en Francia, y que se ha difundido con la pasmosa rapidez de todos los males contagiosos” (“Observaciones” 164, emphasis added).

Fashion and Geopolitics

The afrancesamiento of the customs and culture in Spain was most visible in fashion. Maqueda Abreu comments that the “clases cultas” were the most affected by it and she describes Richard Ford’s, a distinguished British traveler who spent long time in Spain and considered himself Spanish, opininion about it: “La crisis del Antiguo Régimen está cargada de un sentimiento, de un odio frontal de extranjeros y entre ellos resalta particularmente Ford, que desprecia el afrancesamiento de las clases cultas que se manifiesta en trajes, haciéndolo público en su Guía, en la que alaba a las clases bajas, frente a las otras, porque dice que son superiores.” (196)

According to Carmen Bernis, the first echoes of French fashion were present in Spain before 1640, but it was the establishment of the Bourbons in Spain in 1700 that shook the strong national character of the Spanish garment (201). Ana María Velasco more specifically points out that it was Fernando VII (1784-1833), and his wife María Cristina de Borbón, the parents of Isabel II referenced in La de Bringas, who installed French fashion in Spain with their garments (159). However, it was with Isabel II that European (French) fashion triumphed in Spain (Velasco, 160).

During the period of Isabel II, Spain was internally divided between foreign and domestic elements in fashion, culture, customs and finally, as well observed by Velasco, its own (national) essence: “Se identifica lo foráneo como sofisticado y se rechaza lo propio—sobre todo lo castizo, tan querido en los tiempos napoleónicos—por vulgar. Los aristócratas incluso hablaban en francés” (162). This testifies to the political character of fashion in the nineteenth century. Or as Ana María Diaz Marco’s explains, in the nineteenth century, fashion becomes an important ingredient of history, frequently employed by novelists for expression of the spirit of the epoch (Zeitgeist) (135) (7).

National (Fashion) Allegory in La de Bringas

Galdós employs fashion in La de Bringas to create an image of the political and social atmosphere of the period and crisis of the national identity. Through fashion, he portrays the social circumstances of Madrilenian bourgeoise prior to the Revolution of 1868—afrancesamiento of the middle classes and failed imitation of the French model, the downfall of Spanish traditional values, as well as the decay of Isabel II, which ends with her exile to France (8).

Peter Bly, in his canonical work about Galdós, describes La de Bringas as the best example of Galdós’s novel of historical imagination or historical allegory (61). In La de Bringas, Galdós avoids the direct linkage to historical events or figures, but cues parallels between its main characters and historical monarchs: Queen Isabela and Rosalía, King Francisco and Francisco de Bringas. These cues were ample to support the connection, especially for contemporary readers.

The center of the narrative is the Royale Palace in Madrid, where the Royals Isabela II and Francisco reside, as well as the protagonists—the Bringas family—in one of the Royal apartments. As explained in the novel, the Bringas lived in one of the spaces meant for employees of the Palace, far from the Royal luxury that Rosalía desired: “[L]a familia vivía en Palacio en una de las habitaciones del piso segundo que sirven de albergue a los empleados de la Casa Real” (18). In order to get to their apartment on the second floor, Francisco had to climb one hundred and twenty-four steps and the entire stairway was in the form of a labyrinth, as witnessed by the narrator and Manuel Pez during their first visit: “La primera vez que don Manuel Pez y yo fuimos a visitar a Bringas en su nuevo domicilio, nos perdimos en aquel dédalo donde ni él ni yo habíamos entrado nunca” (19, emphasis added). The living arrangement of the Bringas family and convoluted way of getting to it reflect the confusion of their own, as well as national, identity, trapped between the grandiose shine of the frenchified aristocracy and cruel reality of the post-imperial decadentism.

Bly explains the allegory of the living space of the Bringas family as connected to the political and social circumstances of the moment:

The image of the quarters as a city placed above the roof of the royal apartments, immediately and confusingly reminding the reader of the real city of Madrid below, suggests an overweight, ill-proportioned Royal Palace which might topple over. The final image of the servants’ quarters as ‘una real república’ extends the representativeness to a national level: one might conclude that the whole of Spain is quartered atop these royal apartments, as in one sense it is, because of the traditional and spiritual bond between the Monarch and her people symbolized by the crown. The image of the republic applied to the Monarch’s servants is, of course, highly ironic; but it is also prophetic: The Bourbons will be overthrown, toppled over by the nation that they are supposed to serve. As a result of this revolutionary process, a republic will eventually be established. (62)

In other words, the Royal Palace and couple are also representations of the Spanish nation and the crisis of national identity (Noël Valis 14). The Royal couple of French descent is the source of afrancesamiento of the Madrilenian bourgeoise and middle classes, who, through imitation of French fashion and customs try to maintain an appearance of nobility. Conflict between modern/foreign and traditional forces topples the monarchies, both allegorical and historical.

French Fashion as Class Imitation

George Simmel comments that fashion itself is defined through imitation, as a tool for establishing one’s place in society: “La moda es imitación de un modelo dado, y satisface así la necesidad de apoyarse en la sociedad; conduce al individuo por la vía que todos llevan” (73). Similarly, as commented by Díaz Marcos, critics like Valerie Steele see fashion as a tool for creation of one’s own image and identity, even if the improvement is made through imitation: “la dinámica de la moda conjuga el deseo de imitación y el de diferenciación: ser como otros y al mismo tiempo ser ‘diferente’” (Díaz Marcos 51). In this sense, imitation in fashion made possible the apparent fluidity of social classes: “La interpretación de la moda como imitación de las clases superiores destaca su función como marcadora de clase” (Díaz Marcos 36). Exactly this is the essence of the problem with imitation of French fashion expressed in La de Bringas: Spanish bourgeoise and middle classes do not create or improve their own image by imitating a French model, they aspire to be French. In this way, they lose their national essence, while only superficially improving their social status and image. As very well presented in La de Bringas the “improvement in class” through French fashion is false and based on just appearances.

Rosalía mentions several times the importance of appearances for her family. It is very important for her that her children look well and that they represent her impeccable taste and social status: “[Y]a se había provisto de figurines, y proyectaba cosas no vistas para que Isabelita y Alfonso publicaran en la plaza de Oriente, entre la festiva república de niños, el buen gusto de su opulenta mamá” (194). This is because she believed herself to be of a noble origin, an aristocratic woman (9) who deserves a good life, which unfortunately her husband is not providing for her: “Al lado de Bringas no había gozado ella ni comodidades, ni representación, ni placeres, ni grandeza, ni lujo, nada de lo que le corresponda por derecho de su hermosura y de su ser genuinamente aristocrático” (168).

The real social status of the Bringas family is exposed several times in the work. Francisco becomes worried about the amount he will have to pay to his doctor, which may be increased because of Rosalía’s bogus elegance: “‘Señor don Francisco: ayer vi a su señora salir de misa de doce en San Ginés…¡Siempre tan elegante!’ Pues tu dichosa elegancia va a ser el cuchillo con que ese hombre me va a segar el cuello” (206). Rosalía’s hair style is also described as a representation of her “true image”: “[S]u peinado era primitivo, y en su bata se podían estudiar por inducción todas las incidencias del gobierno de una casa pobre” (170, emphasis added). Another example of “false nobility” and “appearances” is provided when Rosalía discovers that the Bringas won’t be able to go on a vacation, out of the city, like “the rest of the aristocrats”: “Tener que decir: ‘No hemos salido este verano’ era una declaración de pobreza y cursilería que se negaban a formular los aristocráticos labios de la hija de los Pipaones y Calderones de la Barca, de aquella ilustre representante de una dinastía de criados palatinos” (203).

French Fashion as Ostensible Liberation

On the other hand, Rosalía feels liberated and elevated to the image of whom she aspires to be, physically, with the help of French fashion: “La única presunción que conservaba era la de llevar siempre su mejor corsé para que no se le desbaratase el cuerpo.” (170). French fashion, and the appearance of wealth and style that it buys her, also seem to initiate Rosalía’s emancipation and separation from the chains of domesticity: “Hacía planes de emancipación gradual, y estudiaba frases con que pronto debía manifestar su firme intento de romper aquella tonta y ridícula esclavitud” (181). Her “slavery” was that of married woman in Spain in the nineteenth century—she was expected to be an angelical mother and wife and nothing more or less: “La pobre señora era una mártir de los insufribles métodos de su marido, y no podía retrasar su vuelta a la casa, porque si la comida no estaba puesta en la mesa a la hora precisa, don Francisco bufaba y decía cosas muy desagradables, como, por ejemplo: ‘Hijita, me tienes muerto de debilidad. Otra vez avisa, y comeremos solos’” (93). Yet, the price of Rosalía’s “freedom” is very high: lies and malversations behind her husband’s back, fear of getting caught and later even prostitution. The fact that she ends up as a prostitute negates the value of her newly achieved freedom, because she, again, existentially depends on men (10).

A special role in Rosalía’s formation as a subject, even temporarily, is reserved for her dressing room, or Camón. This is one place in Francisco de Bringas’ domestic kingdom that is safe from his influence, in which Rosalía is the omnipotent ruler. Elena Delgado comments on this: “En mi opinión, Rosalía siente, ya desde Tormento, al matrimonio como una ‘jaula’ y el Camón se constituye por el contrario en el único lugar donde la autoridad domestica establecida por Bringas, basada en los principios del orden y el ahorro, queda subvertida” (37). This is where all her dresses are, where she spends time with her friend Milagros and talks about fashion. However, Camón is not only a place separated from the rest of the house and her husband’s influence, but from Spain too. It is a French space in which Rosalía and her friends talk about French fashion and style, using French terms and expressions: pouff, chic, gros glasé, biés, retroussé, ruche. This is a practical and direct example of afrancesamiento, its influence on Spaniards and cultural colonization of Spain by France.

Split from Spanish Tradition to Attain French Modernism

The French colonization of Spain through fashion is also exemplified by the rare use and degradation of mantilla by female characters. The traditional Spanish veil mantilla is mentioned twice in relation to women—once when Rosalía puts it on to go to Refugio, a woman of a lower social class who earns money by selling fabrics and pieces of clothing, to ask for a loan and the second time when Refugio is getting ready to go ask another friend for the money she would loan to Rosalía. Both times the mantilla is a “casual” outfit, not elegant or representative, as mantilla traditionally was. Velasco explains that mantilla was a quintessential Spanish item, a symbol of majismo that was worn by ladies of both high and low social classes. Its disuse, which started approximately around 1830 with the slow assent of French fashion, according to Velasco, offers an example of the conflict traditional/Spanish vs. modern/French (163-64).

On the other hand, there are numerous mentions of Rosalía’s beauty in French garments. When Rosalía tries a cape (manteleta), just like one that was worn by the Queen, her friend Milagros tells her: “¡Qué bien, qué bien!...A ver, vuélvete…¿Sabes que me da no sé qué quitártela? No, no te la quites […] Es tuya por derecho de conquista. ¡Es que tienes un cuerpo!” (57). On another occasion, when Rosalía puts on a dress made of Mozambique, a luxurious and expensive material, her friend again praises her beauty and elegance: “Sí es usted elegantísima…, si cuanto usted se pone resulta maravilloso. La verdad, no es porque sea usted mi amiga…A todo el mundo lo digo: si usted quisiera, no tendría rival. ¡Qué cuerpo, qué caída de hombros! Francamente, usted, siempre que se quiere vestir, oscurece cuanto se le pone al lado” (131, emphasis added). Rosalía’s friend’s praises are obviously exaggerated and ironic, and one more of Galdós’s ways of criticizing the superficiality of the frenchified middle bourgeoisie.

Still, French fashion highlights Rosalía’s beauty and makes of her a real seductress. Rosalía herself mentions how many rich suitors she has had: “Ocho años antes, el marqués de Fúcar, que con frecuencia la veía en casa de Milagros, le había hecho la corte. ¿Y ella?..., un puerco espín. Y no era sólo el marqués de Fúcar su único admirador. Otros muchos, y todos ricos, habíanle manifestado con insistente galantería que estaban dispuestos a hacer cualquier disparate” (227). Besides, as observed by Bridget Aldaraca, French fashion gives Rosalía class status and with it, social power: Class status permits access to power, which is, in turn, the prerequisite for entering into the game of power” (55). However, this attractiveness and ostensible power achieved with French fashion only makes Rosalía’s enslavement by patriarchy easier, through prostitution.

Rosalía is not an isolated case of afrancesamiento of the middle bourgeoisie and its appearance of class and nobility, but rather a prototype. This is confirmed in the novel itself when Refugio describes the falsity and superficiality of Madrid’s numerous “poor aristocracy”:

Y aquí, salvo media docena, todos son pobres. Facha, señora, y nada más que facha. Esta gente no entiende de comodidades dentro de casa. Viven en la calle, y por vestirse bien y poder ir al teatro, hay familia que se mantiene todo el año con tortillas de patatas... Conozco señoras de empleados que están cesantes la mitad del año, y da gusto verlas tan guapetonas. Parecen duquesas, y los niños principitos. ¿Cómo es eso? Yo no lo sé. Dice un caballero que yo conozco, que de esos misterios está lleno Madrid. Muchas no comen para poder vestirse; pero algunas se las arreglan de otro modo... (257, emphasis added)

French Fashion and Crisis of Masculinity

From this we can conclude that Spain was a nation of superficial appearances and imitation in the nineteenth century, a nation that had lost its own national values. An example of this loss and final confirmation of the deep crisis of national identity is an ironic presentation of traditional Spanish man, Pez, Bringas’ friend and Rosalía’s ideal of manhood: “[E]l señor de Pez, su ideal…¡Oh, qué hombre tan extraordinario y fascinador! ¡Qué elevación de miras, qué superioridad! […] ¡Y qué finura y distinción de modales, qué generosidad caballeresca! (157). She admires Pez’s manners and stylishness: “¡Y aquel modo de peinarse, tan sencillo y tan señor al mismo tiempo; aquel discreto uso de finos perfumes, aquella olorosa cartera de cuero de Rusia, aquellos modales finos y aquel hablar pomposo, diciendo las cosas de dos o tres maneras para que fueran mejor comprendidas…!” (134).

As commented by Heneghan, Pez is completely different from Rosalía’s stingy husband Francisco, who saves on a soap and neglects his appearance. But exactly this focus on his exterior is what makes Pez similar to the figure of dandy and what ultimately casts “doubt on the protagonists’s adherence to models of conventional masculinity” (Striking 50).

As a part of Galdós’s ironic presentation of the Spanish masculinity of the moment, the novel is full of descriptions of Pez’s caballería and traditional values, expressed by Rosalía, but also the narrator himself. As readers, we are frequently overwhelmed by the praise of Pez’s qualities and virtues. He seems a hope for the recovery of old ideals: “Era este Pez el hombre más correcto que se podía ver, modelo excelente del empleado que llaman alto” (63). He is the “real Spanish man”, caballero, romantic, from times of Spain’s greatest imperial power.

Bly similarly comments on Pez’s important role in Spanish society: “Pez is ideally placed to be the man who possesses the inner secrets of Spain’s recent history, the expert who, having seen governments at work from inside, can suggest remedies for the nation’s problems” (72). He considers himself superior to his contemporaries and representative of old, “better” times:

Considerábase superior a sus contemporáneos, al menos veía más, columbraba otra cosa mejor, y como no lograra llevarla a la realidad, de aquí su flemática calma ….Para contemplar en su fantasía la regeneración de España apartaba los ojos de la corrupción de las costumbres, de aquel desprecio de todas las leyes que iba cundiendo…Adoraba la moral pura, la rectitud inflexible, y su conciencia le indemnizaba de las infamias que veía por doquier. (149)

A part of this “superiority” is Pez’ apparent despise of the “corrupción de las costumbres” (149) and French fashion and its imitation, testified by his description of Rosalía to the narrator: “Con una frase que conservo en la memoria calificó Pez aquel carácter vanidoso, aquel temperamento inaccesible a toda pasión que no fuera la de vestir bien. Dijo este gran observador que era como los toros, que acuden más al trapo que al hombre” (198, emphasis added). By comparing Rosalía to the bull (el toro) Galdós again expresses his dissatisfaction with the cultural colonization of Spain by France. The bull, as the symbol of the Spanish nation, is more seduced by the “trapo”, elements of the exogenous fashion, than by the man, who represents the hegemonic nations (France). In short, this sums up the “Spanish problem” of the period—instead of making important internal political changes based on modern European models, Spanish middle bourgeoise and aristocracy imitated the external products of their modernity, which were not feasible or logical in Spain, as exemplified in Rosalía and Pez.

This bitter description of Rosalía at the same time makes Pez seem resistant to the afrancesamiento and seductions of the “novelty” of French fashion. However, Pez’s connections help Spanish women get clothes from France easily, without hassle on the border. This likewise includes Pez’s daughters—lovers of French fashion: “El administrador de la aduana de Irún debía el puesto que ocupaba a nuestro Pez, y también él era Pez por el costado materno, con lo cual, dicho se está que las niñas se traían a España media Francia” (199).

Hence, this traditional, ideal Spanish man has “half of France” in his house and he is powerless and/or indifferent to it. Besides, he is seduced by Rosalía, even though he describes her as a superficial follower of French fashion, which he despises. He also ends up being cruel and opportunistic—very distant from all the virtues that were ascribed to him—which is exemplified through his behavior with Rosalía, when he intimately engages with her then leaves her without providing promised financial assistance. In this moment, as well worded by Rosalía, Pez loses his idealized chivalrous image to which she firmly held him: “Sí, era un vil, pues bien le había dicho ella que se trataba de una cuestión de honra y de la paz de su casa…¡Qué hombres! Ella había tenido la ilusión de figurarse a algunos con proporciones caballerescas…¡Qué error y desilusión!” (245). Bly also notes Pez’s opportunism and loss of virtues by saying that he “is the epitome of the opportunistic civil servant and his cynicism is a convenient rationalization of his opportunism” (73). So, Pez is only the appearance of the man he aspired to be, proving that Spanish traditional ideals of manhood are corrupt and non-applicable per se at a time that requires a reformulation of the national image. Or as Heneghan concludes: “Trendy on the exterior, but unmanly and inert at the core, the fashionable politician incarnates the illusion of progress and aptly captures the novelist’s critical view of the bourgeois Spaniard’s superficial idea of modernity” (56).


La de Bringas, as a novel of historical imagination, portrays the crisis of Spanish national identity at the end of the nineteenth century as embodied in the clash between modernity (France) and tradition (imperial past). This clash is depicted through French fashion as the main means for afrancesamiento and cultural colonization of Spain by France—represented through Rosalía—and loss of traditional Spanish chivalrous values—represented through Pez.

The depth of the Spanish national/imperial crisis, caused by the loss of the majority of the overseas colonies, is confirmed through Spain’s middle bourgeoise’s readiness to accept French colonization. This is exemplified through Rosalía, who achieves her dreams of luxury through French fashion, abandons the private sphere of subordinated ángel, but ultimately ends up in a worse position than she was in before—as a prostitute and commodity who still existentially depends on men. Similarly, the strength of the crisis is reflected through Pez, who is presented as a traditional and virtuous Spanish man by the narrator and other characters, but who cannot satisfy these social expectations and instead succumbs to the trends and French colonialism through fashion. He considers himself to be above the superficiality of his contemporaries, but as demonstrated earlier, he is just one of the followers of the foreign trends. He is passive regarding his daughters’ infatuation with French fashion and women procure French fashion goods through his connections on the border. This makes him an accomplice in the French colonization of Spain, not a traditional pillar of resistance, as expected from his initial portrayal in the novel.

Both Rosalía and Pez fail in living up to their ideals, as Spain cannot embody France, nor can it be the invincible imperial force it once was. The promise of a solution, political change and finding a balance between the modernity and tradition, is offered through Revolution, with the initiation of which the novel ends. All of this justifies the depiction of fashion as Zeitgeist—as an important element of history—and its capacity to capture and reflect the spirit of the moment.


(1). For example, Fray Luis de León in La perfecta casada (1583) or Alonso de Carranza in Rogación en detestación de los grandes abusos en los trajes y adornos nuevamente introducidos en España (1636) (See Dorotha Heneghan (2006) for more details).

(2). Lorenzo López Trigal and Paz Benito Del Pozo explain geopolitics as “el estudio de la influencia del espacio geográfico sobre los estados y su política. Con frecuencia se identifica con la geografía política, de más amplio contenido” (283).

(3). The cult of bravery and virility of Spanish men was formed from medieval times to the period of Spanish imperialism (fifteenth-sixteenth century), when the “Spanish nation” was at the peak of its power. The glorification of Spanish imperial masculinity was one of the central elements of the romantic cult (1830-40) of the Spanish nation that resulted from the exaltation of Spain’s independence and resistance to Napoleon’s occupation (Susan Kirkpatrick 268). At the same time, the myth about inherent national identity “functioned as an imaginary compensation for the loss of the overseas empire and offered an image of national unity that was useful to a weakened absolutist regime” (Kirkpatrick 268). The crisis of Spanish national identity and emasculation of the Spanish masculinity after 1825 were in large part caused by the loss of all the major colonies (1810-1825, 1898). The emasculation of Spain as a term means “la pérdida tanto de fuerza física como de equilibrio o control moral” (Álvarez Junco 217), which is reflected through its afrancesamiento.

(4). Sebastian Balfour adds that Spanish decline in power was acknowledged by the new European colonial forces: “The British Premier, Lord Salisbury, gave voice to this belief in a speech in 1898 in which he made a thinly disguised reference to Spain as a dying nation” (107).

(5). Together with Spanish imperial decadence and a crisis of masculinity, the orientalization and feminization of Spain by French writers and historians was another principal element of the crisis of national identity. François-René Chateaubriand, Théophile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, and Victor Hugo represented Spaniards as orientalized Muslims and Gypsies and Spanish men as feminized, weak, passive and powerless. Such representations deepened and reinforced the crisis of masculinity and the effects of imperial decadence in Spain in the second half of the nineteenth century (see Joseba Gabilondo’s article (2008) for more details)

 (6). Barbastro Gil states that more than a hundred thousand people and twelve thousand families—marked as “afrancesados”—were exiled from Spain in accordance with monarchial absolutism in the nineteenth century (8). The exiles were most numerous during Fernando VII’s “ominous decade” (1823-1833), when intellectuals like José Espronceda, Duque de Rivas, Alcalá Galiano and Mariano de Larra y Langelot (Mariano José Larra’s father) were exiled. This is why, during the War of Independence, which had a populist character, the intellectual elite was seen as corrupt and anti-patriotic, those who sold the country, whereas el pueblo had saved the country. Even though the liberals saw the village as ignorant, not ready for progress and opposed to modernization, they had to accept el pueblo as a heroic bastion of national liberty (Álvarez Junco 141). Alvarez Junco explains this surprising and antithetical “giro populista de los liberales” as an homage to the pueblo’s bravery and patriotism that saved the country in the war against France that will vanish at the end of the century. In that period and such circumstances, “lo popular” and el pueblo became synonym for traditional religiosity, respect for hereditary hierarchies and anti-French, anti-revolutionary and anti-modern xenophobia.

(7). Zeitgeist is the capacity of fashion to capture the spirit of an epoch: “La idea se remonta al concepto hegeliano del ‘espiritu del tiempo’ y es una explicación espiritual o mística, frente al carácter socioeconómico de las explicaciones basadas en la teoría de la imitación servil (Díaz Marcos 40)

(8). However, La de Bringas is not Galdós’s only novel with fashion as Zeitgeist. Fortunata y Jacinta (1887) is another example of the use of fashion as “espejo de momento” and “anticipación de cambios históricos e ideológicos” (Díaz Marcos 136). I argue that Fortunata y Jacinta, like La de Bringas, represents an allegory of two failed national fictions expressed through fashion—one based on a traditional, imperial past and the other based on imitation of French modernity. These failed national fictions are presented as the clash between “traditional” and “modern/foreign/French” elements (fashion) exemplified through mantón de Manila vs. moda francesa. The first, traditional fiction is presented through the relationship between rich, bourgeois man Juan and Fortunata, a poor girl of the lowest social class who exudes irresistible oriental/colonial attraction for the Occidental Spanish men (the attraction of the colonizer to the (lost) colonies). She is wild and free; Spanish patriarchal society tries to tame her and put her under its control. She represents the village and she is not wearing dresses a la French, like Jacinta, Juan’s wife, but pieces such as “mantón de Manila” or “pendientes turquesas”, which symbolically relates her to the colonies. The “Manila shawl”, which was national fashion during the peak of Spanish imperialism, was now popular only among subaltern classes who were “the last and only repository of decadent Spanish colonialism” (Gabilondo, “Galdós” 25). Hence, Juan’s attraction to Fortunata embodies an old imperial/colonial national fiction characterized by desire, which fails, because Fortunata dies upon giving birth to Juan’s child and because the majority of Spanish colonies were already irrecoverably lost.

The second, modern national fiction represented in the novel is based on the marriage as contract and dominance of the bourgeois class whose entire life is an imitation of the French model, represented through Juan, his family and his marriage to Jacinta, the prototype of the ángel del hogar. Juan gets bored with Jacinta’s conformity and starts having an affair with Fortunata. Jacinta, who is at the beginning of the novel the ultimate representation of the ángel del hogar, becomes independent from her husband, empowered through his betrayal and feminization. She remains in charge of raising Fortunata and Juan’s son as her own, and with that in charge of creating a new, empowered Spanish imperial masculinity. Hence, this bourgeois national fiction also fails. Its failure is represented through Juan’s adulteries and immature behavior, Jacinta’s incapability to conceive and her ultimate split from patriarchy. Neither the failed Spanish colonial empire (Fortunata and Juan) nor bourgeois marriage (Jacinta and Juan) are a viable solution for the formation of a new national identity in Spain. To form a successful national project, Spain needs a different, re-empowered masculinity. This new masculinity is presented in Fortunata and Juan’s son, who is raised by a Spanish bourgeois woman, who is no longer ángel del hogar, but an ángel imperial focused on a new Spanish imperial future.

 (9). Galdós’s other novel about the Bringas family, Tormento (1884), talks about Rosalía’s “noble origin” and peculiar genealogical obsession (supposed connection to the writer Calderón de la Barca), which she uses to confirm her aristocratic social status:

Su flaco era cierta manía nobiliaria, pues, aunque los Pipaones no descendían de Iñigo Arista, el apellido materno de Rosalía, que era Calderón, la autorizaba en cierto modo para construir, aunque sólo fuese con la fantasía, un profundísimo árbol genealógico […] Rosalía Pipaón de la Barca. Esto lo pronunciaba dando a su bonita y pequeña naríz una hinchazón enfática. (125)

(10). See Marina Cuzovic-Severn’s article for a detailed explanation of Rosalía’s ironic and temporary emancipation.


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