As always, a heartfelt thank you to our Baguette Iselen for this enlightening post! Also, thank you to Royal Warrant for suggesting the topic.
Spanish combs and lace shawls or veils? Not easy to translate in English. Mantilla literally means “little blanket” and it’s very old. Spanish women have been covering their heads with ornamental veils since pre-Roman times. The first mantilla appeared in the 16th century. It was only for lower-class women, and it was made of wool to keep the head warm in winter. Some noble ladies took notice of it and started to wear lace mantillas during the 17th and 18th centuries. There’s a “Lady with a Fan” painted by Velázquez with a black mantilla, for example.
It was in the 18th century when the big hair comb appeared too, it came from Naples with King Carlos III. The King’s archaeologists found old Roman combs in Pompeii and they became a trend among ladies. Roman women combed their hair, rolled it up, and sank the comb to hold the bun instead of using hairpins, then put a veil on top. Spanish ladies learned that from Queen Maria Amalia of Saxony and thought it looked cute. Additionally, a big peineta and mantilla helped short women to look taller and were more visible at court events.
Queen Isabel II loved lace and mantillas, there’re several portraits of the Queen wearing them, and they became a “must-have” for every aristocratic lady. Later, when Isabel was kicked out of Spain, they became a symbol of support to the House of Bourbon because noble ladies wore them to mock Amadeo of Savoy in 1871, a foreign king they didn’t want because they supported Alfonso, Isabel’s son. It’s the so-called “Conspiracy of the Mantillas” that led to the proclamation of the Republic.
Picture it: all duchesses, countesses, and marchionesses wearing black dresses and white lace mantillas pinned with a Bourbon fleur de lys, glaring angrily at the King’s Italian entourage. Amadeo left Spain because he realized he wasn’t loved. The Republic only lasted for a couple of years and Alfonso became king finally.
In the early 20th century, the mantilla fell out of favour in most parts of the country. The style was worn only in Andalusia and sometimes in Madrid to attend church services and some festivals.
Carmen Polo, the dictator’s wife, brought the mantilla back because, by the mid-20th century, the style was linked to religious events and traditional conservative grandmothers. She deliberately created an aura of distinction around them and they became a symbol of very Spanish pious ladies with irreproachable behaviour who were the cream of the society and the role model for every woman. Queen Sofia was literally forced to wear them to attend every event possible in an attempt to “get rid” of her Greek, orthodox Christian roots. Mrs. Polo tried to turn the princess into an ideal Spanish lady.
In my country, peinetas and mantillas are still linked in our minds to the dictatorship, to sanctimonious women, to uppish aristocratic ladies, and this is why Queen Letizia never wears them “out of context.” They’re normal if you attend Easter services in Seville, for guests invited to a high-class wedding in Andalusia, in some festivals and when there’s a special day in a bullfighting ring, for the mother of the groom only at classy weddings all over the country, to visit the Pope if it’s a formal audience. Those are perfectly fine in the south but they’d look odd in the north of Spain. Queen Sofia was forced to wear them in other events when she was younger and kept the tradition but Letizia is a modern queen and more cautious.
How to wear peineta and mantilla? First of all, hair up in a simple low bun, if you have short hair, they can make a “grid” with interwoven hairpins and they sink the peineta there. It’s painful, above all as hours tick by, heavy and not easy at all to move naturally with them. This is a case of “beauty is pain.”
Best peinetas are made of tortoiseshell, nowadays most of them are made of plastic, they’re lighter and those poor animals are protected. How to choose them? According to your height, your face shape and the height of your partner. If you’re short, go big, but taller peinetas are difficult to wear; if you’re tall with an oval face, you’re lucky because short peinetas are way more comfortable. Queen Sofia didn’t have problems when she walked next to Prince Felipe on his wedding day, he’s tall enough and she could wear a really big gun.
Mantilla and peineta are worn to attend religious weddings, only if the groom wears a morning coat, with a long dress or a cocktail dress that covers the knee. White or cream mantillas are usually worn by single women, and black lace mantilla is for married ladies, but nobody pays attention to this tradition anymore and I get the impression that we’re following the Japanese kimono colour tradition now: cream mantillas in spring or summer events, sometimes with flowers, black in winter or for very formal events and Easter services.
Mantillas are made of Chantilly or Blonda lace, the Spanish favourite. A blonda mantilla is made of matte silk for the net and the flower patterns are made of shiny silk thread to highlight them, always with a scalloped edge. Your height is crucial when it comes to choosing them, it must reach your wrists on the front and fall a few inches below your hips at the back, it’s pinned to the shoulders to avoid the “superhero cape” effect when walking but loosen enough for you to tilt your head naturally if necessary. It must be well balanced with the peineta and cover it completely. It’s also pinned on the back of the peineta with a brooch creating little pleats. It’s very difficult to get it right, honestly.
There you have it – one of our traditions!