Matadors’ Feelings About Their Suits
The traje de luces, what is it: a symbolic wedding dress or the survivor of a working-class anti-French protest?
Some of each, thinks Amalia Descalo, specialist in Spanish 17th and 18th century costume at the Museo del Traje in Madrid. Writing in the catalogue of the current exhibition of matadors’ clothes at the taurine museum in Nîmes, she says that, in 18th century Madrid, it was smart to speak French, to wear French clothes, even to eat French food. Then came majismo, the artisans’ movement to reject Frenchification and preserve the Spanish identity. At a time when the most important item of French clothing was the elaborate coat, they wore a short jacket with big shoulders; when nobody was ever seen without a wig, they grew their hair long and kept it tidy in a snood, as we see worn by the peóns in a corrida Goyesque today. They wrapped a sash, as worn by Algerian women, round their waists. She believes that the matadors’ suit derives from the majo suit . “In addition, the bull is always associated with majismo”.
Señora Descalo also sees an eastern influence. Two costumes she was given as children’s torero suits proved to be 19th century Greek, heavily embroidered with gold thread and with the underarms of the sleeves left unstitched. They are now in the Musee de Vieux Nîmes.
The silk, the bright colours, the gold and silver embroideries of the traje de luces, remind her of the Mediterranean wedding dress. When she asked the matadors taking part in the exhibition if they thought this was a fair comparison, they all replied that it reminded them of the consecration of the alternativa.
The matadors speak on a film shown with the costumes on display.
Luis Francisco Esplá says that a man’s alternativa suit is the most important thing. “All the rest is whim. Very often the suit is white, like a wedding dress. I took my alternativa in a white and silver suit. That was the only time I wore it. There is a certain purity and simplicity in the choice of white. It signifies a transition. In the case of a wedding, the maiden becomes a woman, and in the case of a torero, he goes to meet a totally different animal and a public with different demands.”
He points out that, in most ritualistic ceremonies, white is used to show that one is passing from one stage of life to another. “Novice priests process in white, many African tribes paint the body white for the ceremony initiating them to adult life and the novillero dresses in white.”
Why the gold? “A curious thing is that three professions wear gold on their costumes and it is three professions which, one way or another, deal with death: the military, the priests and the matador. These are three connections with death and they are all associated with a ritual. War is a ritual, a code of war; religion is much more than a ritual, it’s like wanting to convince all the world that the priest is close to the divine nature. In the case of the matador, it is a mechanism created by man against death.” He likens the matador to God, having power over wild creatures, giving the idea that you can defeat human misery.
Talking of his first memories of the traje de luces, Sébastien Castella says: “At first a torero wears what he can borrow. There is no choice of colour or embroidery. My first suit of lights was borrowed from Chinito, a French matador. Many novilleros and toreros wore it; I think even Nimeño used it. The first time I borrowed it, at Boujan for a novillada without picadors, I took the jacket off because it was so uncomfortable.”
Sometimes, even now, he has little choice. Sometimes there are suits that he doesn’t want to wear again because they remind him of a less than triumphant afternoon, but it might happen that the sword handler lays one out. “I say: ‘No, no. Isn’t there another suit?’ And he says: ‘No, today I have brought this one.’ Then I have to wear it and, if I cut the ears, it has the opposite effect, it becomes a lucky suit.”
Sébastien Castella often wears pale colours and he particularly likes mauve, but he has had two black suits; at the start of his career he had a black and gold one and again last year. “Last year was a bit special, a bit amusing. For a long time I had wanted a black costume with jet in memory of El Gallo. I had seen a photograph of him in black, in mourning for his mother. That was not so in my case, but I adore black and wanted an identical costume, black with jet embroidery.”
César Jiménez remembers going to buy his first suit of lights; he couldn’t afford new, so he looked at second-hand suits. “But I was very small and thin. I tried on lots but found nothing to fit, so I had to have one made.”
He wore his alternativa suit again and again because he couldn’t afford anything else, but he wore his confirmation suit only twice. “No more. It was special for that day and I have never worn it again except in my village, because it is something special.” Now they both hang at home, waiting for him to buy a glass case to show them in.
“Now I wear suits that are a bit more elaborate and always a new suit for Madrid and Seville.” He wears white and gold the most and pale pink is another colour he likes, but now he is choosing darker colours. “It’s a bit to do with the evolution of my way of toreo. I think darker colours match my developing personality better.”
He talks of the ritual: “The moment I get up, even the night before a corrida, there is a sort of ritual, doing more or less the same things in the same way. Everything has to be a ritual to confront the rite of death. We dress because we prepare for the most elegant death possible, in the most showy way possible; we dress ourselves in lights.”
Juan Bautista likes to make each suit a little different. “I try colours I have never used. I try to make the embroidery and the designs original, something that everyone else doesn’t have. I prefer gold. Jet and silver, they’re very pretty, but I rarely have them, except for occasions that are a bit special.”
Asked if the flattering costumes help to make him a hero in the eyes of the public, he says: “Any torero can be considered a hero because he dominates and torears an animal of 500kg, something very few people are capable of. The costume gives more colour and festivity to the corrida.”
“I keep the suits that have importance or a story. I keep my alternativa suit and the two when I was carried out of the big gate in Madrid, once as a novillero, the other as a matador.” He brings them out again. “Last year, when the season wasn’t going very well, I felt the need to wear one of the Madrid suits again. It’s navy blue, a colour I like a lot. Of course, the suit plays a part in the corrida. When I see it lying on the chair, if it is new, I hope to give it an important baptism and a triumph. If I have already worn it, I recall the triumphs and the defeats I have had with it and all that restores the spirits. Putting on the suit is also a way of changing one’s mentality. Once I have the suit on, I am more serious. I know that I am going to risk my life in the arena. Something important waits for me and it is the suit that accompanies me.
“The challenge for the torero is to enjoy yourself and do the best you can. The faena is beautiful because it is gentle, full of harmony, of beautiful movements, but you cannot forget that the bull is there to be beaten, to defend himself and that, at any moment, an accident can happen.”
ON THE WEARING OF THE YELLOW
Juan Bautista: “It brings bad luck, so, out of respect for my companions on the cartel and as a matter of taste, because I don’t like yellow, I never wear it. I am not really superstitious, but I am not going to tempt the devil and do things that are not done in this circle. Jesulín de Ubrique has worn yellow and has had a very good career. But it is in his personality to do slightly provocative things. I am not like that.”
Sébastien Castella: “I like yellow a lot. Out of respect for my companions I don’t wear it, but in normal life I often wear yellow or something with a bit of yellow in it because I like this lively colour.” He says that he doesn’t understand why yellow is taboo because the cloak is lined with yellow.
César Jiménez: “I’m a bit superstitious and I would never dare to wear a yellow suit, but not only because of superstition. I don’t wear yellow because I don’t think it’s nice. I like gold embroidery and gold and yellow together would be very shocking.”
(The exhibition is open until 31st October. Remember that the museum is closed on Mondays. A catalogue with DVD costs 29.50 euros)