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One of the most striking garments within the flamenco dress is, without a doubt, the shawl: the colors, the embroidery, the fringes, the fall that adorns the dance… In this post we delve a little deeper into the characteristics of the manila shawl.

Origin of the Flamenco manila shawl

Although its name refers to the Spanish colonies (Manila was the capital of the Philippines), the origin of the shawl is in China: it arrived in Spain in the 18th century through the colonial routes coming from the East, which is evident from the oriental motifs embroidered by hand on the old silk shawls. 

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Flamenco dancer with the flamenco shawl

Flamenco dancer with the flamenco shawl

Although at the beginning it was used only as a warm garment, it quickly became a necessary complement not only to the flamenco dress, but also to other traditional garments, such as the chulapa costume from Madrid.

Flamenco dancer with the flamenco shawl

Flamenco dancer with the flamenco shawl

The legend of the cigarette makers

There are several legends about the origin of the manila shawl, although the most widespread is the legend of the cigarette-makers of Seville. It explains that the silk fabric of the manila shawl was nothing more than the protection with which the bales of tobacco from America were wrapped and with which the contents were protected from humidity during the trip. According to this legend, the cigarreras kept the fabrics and embroidered them, using them to cover their shoulders as shawls.

Symbology of the manila shawl

As we have already explained, the flamenco shawl dates back to China and in its embroideries, formerly of oriental inspiration and, at present, of varied themes among which the floral one stands out, a whole hidden language is hidden at the disposal of whoever wants to know it.

  • Fauna: phoenix, peacock and butterflies are the three species that stand out above the rest in the embroidery of the classic manila shawl, although it is possible to see all kinds of animals. Resilience, joy and transformation, respectively, are the meanings we can give to each of them.
  • Flora: the oriental origin of the shawl can be clearly seen in the profusion of embroidered lotus flowers that can be found in shawls all over the world. In Spain, moreover, it is very common to find roses, related to the Passion of Christ, but also lilies, rosemary and daisies.
  • Trees, leaves and fruits: Pine leaves and vines, together with pinecones and grapes, are two very common symbols; the former refers to knowledge, while the latter is related to prosperity and abundance.
  • Human figures: again, we observe the influence of oriental culture, with embroidered representations, not only of the Chinese imperial family and the divinities of this culture, but everyday scenes of this society. Because of the beauty and colorfulness of their embroidery, these scenes survive even in modern shawls.


Who uses the manila shawl?

Although it has become a fashion accessory capable of enhancing any look (even Queen Letizia has worn it on more than one occasion), the manila shawl is an accessory used mainly by flamenco dancers, although sometimes it is also worn by flamenco singers.

In flamenco, the shawl (well used) is an indispensable complement to the dance, an extension of the movement of the expert dancer, who handles the shawl as a part of her own body, giving it movement and showiness to the beat of the music.

Of course, the rhythm varies depending on the palo being performed, but the movements are similar: sticking to the arms, accompanying the dancer’s arm movements; moving it in front or behind the body; imitating the movement of a bullfighter’s cape or even moving it in a circular motion using one hand. 

However, to achieve harmony it is necessary for the dancer to have experience and master the necessary technique: only then will she be able to turn the shawl into a part of her body and give it the same grace with which she moves it during the dance.

The use of the manila shawl Flamenco in dance

Although they are more common in the world of flamenco, as we have already explained, the use of the shawl has become widespread in many other areas and not only as a fashion accessory: zarzuela or cabaret are two musical styles far from flamenco, but in which it is also possible to find shawls that brighten and decorate the movements of the corps de ballet.

To ensure its attractiveness, drape and movement, the shawl used for the dance must meet a series of conditions:

  • Made of natural silk and hand-embroidered: no two are exactly alike.
  • It measures about 145 centimeters and has about 21 cm of lattice and about 30 cm of fringe. In any case, folded diagonally it should cover the back and reach the dancer’s fingertips, with the arms extended perpendicular to the body.
  • It must weigh enough to have enough body and not wrinkle during the dance: it is possible to find shawls weighing up to two kilos.

In addition, in the case of dance shawls, it is wise to choose one or the other depending on the palo in which it will be used, being recommended the lighter ones for sevillanas or bulerias, which require more speed and dynamism, or very bright colors for rumbas, a more sensual dance. As for colors, the most commonly used are red, ivory, black or white.

How did the small shawl become a fundamental part of flamenco?

Although at the beginning it was a warm garment, little by little the use of the shawl was generalized among the ladies of the time, both among the upper classes and among the most popular strata.

Flamenco references, such as Pastora Imperio, La Macarrona or Matilde Coral were the great promoters of the popularization of this garment within the dance, through its use in the Sevillian school. 

How to choose a Flamenco shawl?

It depends not only on the dance in which you are going to use it, but also on your physical complexion, your height and the dress with which you are going to combine it. Remember that the shawl should cover your back completely and reach your fingertips with your arms stretched out in a cross. Also, when choosing the most suitable shawl for you, keep in mind the following:

  • Embroidery: the most beautiful embroideries are those made with the threads very close together and that occupy a large part of the shawl. However, they require much more work, so they tend to significantly increase the price of the garment.
  • Drawings: you can order an exclusive shawl, completely designed and personalized for you, but keep in mind that the complexity of the drawings may also increase the final price.
  • Silk weight: if you are going to use it occasionally, you can choose a thinner material; for continuous use, especially in the case of professional dancers, a thicker silk is required, with more body, consistency and durability.
  • Trellis and bangs: when they are handmade in natural silk, they give the shawl a greater attractiveness, especially when dancing.

How to place the manila shawl correctly?

There is no single correct way to wear a shawl: the important thing is to wear it with grace and confidence to achieve that point of elegance that will enhance any outfit. These are the five most common ways to wear a shawl:

  • Crossed over the chest: placed in the shape of a peak on the back and crossed in front, bringing the two ends back to the back and fastened with a brooch. You can also place it exactly the other way around to give it a touch of modernity.
  • Shawl type: whether in plaid or V-neck, slightly draped over the shoulders, it adds an elegant and sensual touch to any dress. Want to show off the bangs even more? wear one of the peaks towards the shoulder.
  • Macarrona: as it appears in the paintings of Julio Romero de Torres, you only have to place it in a peak on the chest, cross it at the back and bring the ends to the shoulders, fastening them there with a couple of brooches or even with a couple of invisible stitches. 
  • Dress: a large shawl placed in the form of a peak on the back and with the ends crossed over each shoulder, without gathering, with a plain black dress underneath will be an ideal look of the most original. 

How to properly preserve a manila shawl?

A well-preserved quality manila shawl is a garment that passes from generation to generation, becoming a family legacy. For this, you must take care of it and preserve it in the best possible way:

  • Never hang the shawl on a hanger: the weight of the embroidery and trellis will eventually wear down the silk, which could crack.
  • It is also not advisable to store them folded in a drawer, as they may generate wrinkles that are very difficult to remove.
  • The best way to store a manila shawl is wrapped in white tissue paper and wrapped in a cardboard tube, to avoid the dreaded wrinkles.
  • Make sure that the shawl is in a place with a stable temperature between 20 and 25 degrees.
  • Try to take it out and air it at least twice a year, so that the silk can “breathe”.

If when you are going to use the shawl you find that it has wrinkled, leave it stretched out on a flat surface for a couple of days: the weight of the bangs and embroidery will help it regain its shape without damaging the fabric.

The Manila shawl in art

We do not only find manila shawls in the work of Julio Romero de Torres: countless painters have immortalized this garment, commonly used by ladies of both wealthy and less wealthy classes during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Thus, we find references to this garment in the work of countless painters, such as Joaquín Sorolla (Sevilla: el baile), Ignacio Zuloaga (Bailarina), Hermenegildo Anglasa Camarasa (Granadina) or Manuel Cabral Bejarano (En la romería de Torrijos), among others.

Influence of the manila shawl on fashion

Although it has always been present in flamenco fashion and in more elegant looks, such as for brides and wedding guests, in recent years the manila shawl has made the leap to street style, as seen in designs by Dolce & Gabanna, Johanna Ortiz, Carolina Herrera and Lorenzo Caprile. 

The two latter designers have created dresses for Queen Letizia, a firm advocate of the style based on the manila shawl, both in dresses and embroidered skirts.


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