Saturday, January 7, 2012

Dressed to Kill

A Dance of Death
Last fall it was announced from Spain that the city of Barcelona had held its last bull fight.  The spectacle, I cannot call it a sport, has traditions reaching back to the middle ages when the pitting of man against beast was an acceptable form of entertainment.  Like bear baiting or cock fighting, it probably had its roots in the games of the Colosseum.  While I have never attended a bull fight—it wasn't from any lack of opportunity but more from a matter of personal choice—I do appreciate the artisanal skill in creating the costume known as the suit of lights.

In the Middle Ages, participation in this event was reserved for knights and noblemen.  Perhaps practiced earlier by the Moors, it was first performed on horseback against the bull in the arena.  The spectacle was as much about horsemanship and valor as it was about man's superiority over nature.  By the 18th century it was possible for commoners to earn the right to enter the arena.  Their status, or lack of it, necessitated the wearing of a red sash across the chest.  As well, because of their lowly rank, commoners had to face the bull on foot and the rest, as they say, is history. 

So how did the current costume develop from the humble leather breaches, simple belt, coarse woolen shirt, and red sash into the spectacular display it is today.  The suit eventually borrowed details from the "majos", Spanish aristocrats, who were influenced by the Bourbon court of Louis XIV's grandson, in the 18th century.  Assimilating the fashion for decorative embellishment that was so much a feature of court dress, it became blended with the stylized characteristics of Islamic patterns, a constant reminder of Spain's 8th and 9th century occupation, and more contemporary fashions of floral and Christian iconography.  The eventual use of gold thread and bullion came later, around the beginning of the 19th century and can be documented in images painted by Goya.  The transition from "majo" to matador—or from dandy to idol—was now complete.  Profane elegance becomes sacred elegance.   

Contemporary Suit of Lights
The term "suit of lights" is a metaphor and a play on the word "Lucifer," meaning bearer of light.  The battle in the arena can be compared to the mythical battles of the great archangels, such as Saint George who slew the dragon.  The finest of silks, linens, and velvets embroidered with shining gold arabesques are now the hallmark of a matador.  Only he can wear the suit embellished with gold threads.  His assistants, the banderilleros or picadors, wear silver embroideries.  The entire costume, designed to catch and reflect the light and shadow of the late afternoon sun, locks the matador and bull in a macabre ballet of life and death.  The reflective qualities of the suit are designed to dazzle the crowd and confuse the bull.

A matador's suit requires more than a month to create, not including the preparation period during which the colours, the embroidery and the materials are chosen.  Many fittings insure that the garment acts like a second skin.  The tailoring is flawless; every cut is exact to avoid one false fold.  The matador must remain impeccable during the fight for he represents a kind of sacrifice or saintliness.  Like the knights of the 13th century, colours and emblems work together symbolically, signifying his membership in a sort of bullfighting nobility.  Don't be fooled; this is more than a pretty costume. Like a corset, it is cut to enhance the stance of the fighter and mentally prepare him to do battle.  A matador may require seven or eight such suits per year depending on his fighting schedule!

Embroidery detail
The suit consists of three pieces and the cape.  The jacket is shortened to waist length to avoid obstructed movement during the fight. Shoulders are emphasized by enormous epaulettes which accentuate the neatness of the waist by broadening the chest.  The sleeve is not sewn into the armseye, but only over the shoulder to allow for greater freedom of movement while maintaining a tight silhouette over the torso.  The effect can be traced to elements of medieval armor. Tassels and fringe provide further movement and play with the light reflective qualities of the metal threads to dazzle and distract. The jacket is always worn open to reveal the vest and a pristine linen shirt.  Often the shirt is so heavily embroidered that it can weigh between 6 to 8 pounds. The vest is attached to the jacket in a way that, when buttoned, the two are perfectly aligned.  Once again, these details were introduced to maintain the bullfighter's neat appearance during the fight.  The shirt itself retains religious symbolism and some matadors are superstitious enough to keep repairing this garment as it becomes worn with wear.  Embroidery in the form of white work or broderie anglaise decorates the finest of batiste.  The appearance is similar to the old tuxedo shirts of the 1970's.

Vest always coordinates with the suit
Up to 12 miles of gold thread can be required to complete the embroidery on the more elaborate suits!  The narrow pants, with their high waist suspended from the shoulders, can be traced to the early 19th century.  Since the 18th century these pants have been made of silk or satin.  The outside of the leg is embroidered with the same motifs that decorate the vest and jacket.  Garters and silk stockings complete the ensemble.  It is this garment which accentuates the torero's masculinity and turns him into an object of myth and sexual desire.  The act of dressing becomes an art form as well.  Women are not permitted to attend this ceremony. It can take up to three hours of solemn prayer and contemplation, for the matador is constantly aware that this could be his last fight.  Following prayer, personal ablutions are performed in a manner than can only be described as ritualistic.  The placement of a lock of hair—"la coleta"—to the back of the neck begins the transformation from mortal to god.  The suit is laid out on a chair in a particular presentation and, with the aid of his valet, the dressing begins, a procedure that can last for some 45 minutes.  Stepping into the soft pumps of calves skin, designed to grip the sandy floor of the arena, and the donning of his cape completes this ceremony.  

A bullfighter is a superstitious and religious man.  Colour choices and embroidered patterns can be based on a matador's personal fears or taboos, as much as on personal associations.  Often, the costume's  palette borrows the colours of a religious holiday or saint.  A suit of black cloth and jet embroidery communicates personal mourning and is tied to earlier customs that culminated in the 19th century practices for men and women.

Mourning suit
A skin tight net is worn beneath this garment for support
Sleeve detail
Arabesques and florals display Islamic influences

Immaculate fit is the hallmark of the tailor

Epaulette influenced by earlier armors
The dance of death begins.  The silhouette defined by the elaborate embroideries creates a visual armor in the pose below.  What will happen to the art form?  Will Madrid and Mexico follow the movement away from the arena?  Due to the fragile nature of these garments and the conditions under which they are used, very few pieces survive for posterity.  If damaged or stained severely, the embellishment is unpicked to reclaim the precious gold for reprocessing.   

Let's hope that museum curators will start to consider the importance of collecting some of these suits before it's "Lights Out!"

Fit for battle
While the future of the bull fight is in question, my tour this September to Spain is not.  Why not join me on:

A Spanish Sojourn
September 23 to October 7, 2012

For complete details visit. and look under Joseph Hisey Specialty Tours


  1. Fabulous post, Joseph. I had no idea the embroidery patterns of the matadors' costumes were influenced by Islamic design, though given Spain's history it stands to reason that they would be. Thanks so much for sharing this wealth of information - and such wonderful pictures. Looking forward to more from you.

  2. My father-in-law and brother-in-law were Spanish bullfighters, but they never explained ALL of that to me. Thanks for the wonderful and detailed comments. I will be sorry to see this spectacle disappear, but bullfights today are NOT the style and grace of movement and passes as they were 40-50 years ago. El Cordobes certainly did his share of showing off to take away from the REAL art of bullfighting.
    Mary Ellen Page