Celebrating Joaquín Sorolla, Spanish style, and bullfighters with Oscar de la Renta and André Leon Talley

Equipage of a toreador. (Rozalia Jovanovic)
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Juan Belmonte, the famed 1920s bullfighter, wore bright pink socks for luck in the ring. The color also rendered his legs highly visible and accentuated their quick movement.

Those same stockings, along with Belmonte’s blue silk jersey breeches, 1940s bullfighting star Carlos Arruza’s gold embroidered capote de paseo (ceremonial cape), various coleta (a ceremonial pigtail worn at the nape of the neck), and the metallic passementerie of Antonio Ordóñez—famed subject of Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer—are some of the more vibrant items on display at Joaquín Sorolla & the Glory of Spanish Dress, an exhibition at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute.

Beside the various Matador mannequins are two delicate earth-toned gouaches on paper and cardboard with renderings of scenes from the corridas, or bullfights.

The exhibit, conceived by Oscar de la Renta and curated by Vogue editor André Leon Talley, presents—across three floors—a series of studies by painter Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida of Spanish regional culture and traditional dress paired with costumes similar to those depicted.

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Sorolla created these sketches, gouaches, and oil paintings while working on a large-scale mural, Vision of Spain, commissioned by Archer Milton Huntington of the Hispanic Society of America in 1911. They convey the rural life and the customs of eleven regions of Spain in the early twentieth century, customs in which a reverence for rank, power, and piety was embedded in a kind of sartorial symbology.

Lagartera Bride (1912), one of Sorolla’s most striking images, shows a bride whose “bouquet outfit” with its great many petticoats, demonstrates her family’s wealth. In an image showing a man and woman from the Roncal Valley, the woman’s red mantilla conveys that she is unmarried. In another image, a young woman from Ansó is weighted down by a many-layered black dress signifying that she is attending a formal church ceremony.

The third floor of the exhibit, devoted to contemporary design inspired by Spanish culture, opens with a video of Jacqueline Kennedy on horseback riding with the Duchess of Alba (“The Most Titled Woman in the World”) during Seville’s 1966 Spring Fair when Kennedy paid a much-chronicled visit to Spain. While the video captures the charm and vibrancy of the pomp and circumstance of Spanish culture presented so strongly on the lower floors and a respectable attempt is made to connect it to the world at large, it loses something in this effort. The designs by Christian Lacroix, Karl Lagerfeld, and Balenciaga, among others, while extraordinary works of fashion feel somewhat hollow compared with the message-laden regional garb painted by Sorolla.

While it seemed, moving through the show, that one medium, either fashion or painting, would be eclipsed by the other, both the clothes and the paintings seemed transformed on a second viewing, speaking to one another across time and social codes: The movement of the toreador with the cutting-edge movement the fashion aspires to create.