Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ronaldo Fraga: Fashion, Cartoons and Disney

What do theme parks, Mexican paper banners and fashion can possibly have in common? I would say a whole lot, after seeing the work of Ronaldo Fraga. Fraga is a Brazilian designer, his collection "Disneylandia" was part of Sao Paulo's fashion week. For his latest collection Fraga created an exuberant mishmash of Latin American folk tradition, theme park imagery, Disney kitsch and a bit of mid-century illustration. In the artists own words:
"My eyes melt with the thought of Mexican fiestas, Colombian textile handicrafts, emotional Argentinean cinema, Olinda’s carnival and its confetti and serpentine throws, and writings of Borges, Drummond, García Marquez, and Cortázar… all fronts of cultural resistance in a slippery world without frontiers. I think about how we, Brazilians, interact with our next-door neighbor – Miss Latin America –, who we barely greet when we meet in the elevator every day. In this collection I attempt to exchange cups of sugar with a neighbor who does not speak my language, but whom I can talk to through music, a graphic universe, political and religious discomfort, and the feeling of a possible place in the contemporary world."

A rickety wooden catwalk was created for the fashion show. The many passages made it resemble a labyrinthine favela, or Brazilian shanty town. The model's look was that of "Meme Mau", or what a friend of my grandmother's used to call the bastardized Mexican version of Minnie Mouse, by sporting enormous hair knots that resembled Mikey ears. Collars made out of little "chiclet" boxes, richly embroidered jackets, dresses stamped with Disney characters and Latin American flags were included in the collection. All the models had powdered pigment dusted on their foreheads, making them look as chimney sweeps from the movie "Mary Poppins". The pigment could allude to a splash of paint or the vitality that creates an animated character, or the ash people in Latin America wear on their foreheads during Ash Wednesday: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Powdered pigment, to powdered pigment?

Death and other different layers of meaning pop-up in the imagery of Fraga's accessories, like the above pictured "La Muerte" lapel accessory from La Loteria, the popular Mexican bingo game or these skeletal Mikey Mouse pendants:

The collection may be best remembered for its amazing dresses inspired by "Papel Picado" or paper banners created for Mexican holidays. Fraga seems to specially like designs with skulls traditionally used during the Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead holiday. Papel picado in its ethereal fragility alludes to death and mortality. In this case, fabric mimics paper.

This collection may also have a connection with mid-century illustration. Some of Fraga's folky "boho chic" creations show influences from traditional "huipiles", or roomy blouses and dresses worn by women from the isthmus of Tehuantepec. The style of the Tehuana, what the women from this region are called, is often associated with Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, who popularized the look during the 1940's. The Tehuana costume also inspired Mexican illustrator and ethnographer Miguel Covarrubias (1904 - 1957) and American designer Mary Blair (1911 - 1978).

Tehuana Inspiration

In the US, illustration styles of the 1940's to the 1960's reflected curiosity and discovery. The space race and the ability to travel to exotic locations fascinated North American audiences. Both Covarrubias and Blair benefited from travel and study "on site". Covarrubias spent years researching Olmec culture and the people and traditions of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, where the Tehuana costume originated. He had a theory that the native culture of Mexico diffused as far north as the Mississippi delta, and as far away as Easter Island. Here is one of his illustrations for his book "Mexico South", published in 1946.

Covarrubias was a successful illustrator and cartoonist. His work was published by The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. Like Blair, he was also a talented colorist.

Mary Blair also spent some time in Mexico studying painting, before going to work for Walt Disney in 1940. She later joined her husband, Lee Everett Blair, other creative professionals and Disney himself on a gig traveling to several Latin American countries. The project was sponsored by the federal government under Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, that was meant to oversee Latin America in a more "benign and peaceful" tone after years of interventionism. It was also meant to prevent and discourage anti-US sentiment. The reasons for Disney to participate were many. It was an opportunity to promote his studio using Uncle Sam's money, since the studio was strapped for cash. His artists researched the studio projects that would later become Disney's animated "The three Caballeros" and "Saludos Amigos". Here's some concepts created by Mary Blair.

Mary Blair moved on to create designs and concepts for some of Disney's classic animated movies, among them "Cinderella", "Peter Pan" and "Alice in Wonderland", but her aesthetic was forever influenced by the folklore and the color of Latin America. She was also the creative force behind the ride "It's a Small World". Originally one of four Disney sponsored attractions for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, the beloved (and at times hated) ride was also created from concepts developed by Mary Blair.

Much like "Its a Small World", Fraga's "Disneylandia" speaks to us of optimism, unity and nationalistic harmony in Latin America. But is real, or just light, glitter, plywood and paint? Is the perennial Carnival-like vision of Latin America gone, making way for cultural understanding, or do we still delight in the make believe cha- cha land, complete with margaritas and an obnoxious "hot tamale train" to ride on? Personally, I just think of the artisans, weavers, textile and garment workers in Latin America, and those of Latin American origin working in the US industry, and question the real role of indigenous artists in the fashion world. Ronaldo Fraga tells us of a different Latin America that has possibly arrived to the international design and culture arena on its own terms:

"Now I look at the neighbors of a Latin America I am not familiar with, an America different than the one with cucaracha generals and dictators who were lost in time, and different than the one who is denied a US visa or bears the heavy burden of corruption".
I would add one caveat - the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe the process has also gone full circle. A fashion designer inspired by a theme park; a theme park that drew inspiration from an illustrator, an illustrator that found her inspiration in the colors of Latin America. Small world, indeed.

Links and photo credits:
Check out Ronaldo Fraga's Flickr Photostream to view more of his work. You can also visit the designer's blog. Other photos by Camilo Gutierrez via

The Covarrubias illustrations from "Mexico South", now out of print, come from the literary blog Bellemeade Books

The Mary Blair illustration comes from Littleverses. It includes photos from Mary Blair's Latin American trip from Life magazine, and more information about how her concepts helped influence Disneyland's look. Additional images by Peko-chan

This link is about the controversy of redesigning the ride "It's a Small World" by adding Disney characters and a patriotic "Up with America" sequence, and tampering with the original Mary Blair concept.

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