Dressing to kill: The history and art of the bullfighter’s “suit of lights”
Story by Gina-Maria Garcia // Photos by Maria Amasanti
MADRID – Five months ago, it was just a sketch on paper. Today, Rafael de la Rosa is trying on his custom-made bullfighting suit for the very first time.
“Right there, right there, right there,” de la Rosa rapidly demands to the tailor who is gently adjusting the coat from behind. He stands still in front of the dressing room mirror as Antonio Lopez Fuentes carefully pins the material between his shoulder blades. The coat is noticeably more fitted. “That’s perfect.”
Inside the small shop called Fermín, tucked away on a narrow cobblestone street next to the center of Madrid’s bustling shopping district, master tailor Fuentes steps aside and lets de la Rosa admire his handiwork. The bullfighter, or “torero” in Spanish, stands with a regal posture meant to intimidate, with his two feet planted on the ground and his shoulders up, chest out.
“The bullfighter for each small town was considered like a king,” Fuentes says through a translator, speaking about early matadors. His shop was opened by his brother in 1960. “In a certain time, they compared the torero in the same standing as God, not because they venerated him, but because they dressed him with gold.”
For the dozen designers at Fermín, making a suit is a lengthy, intense process that can take weeks or even months. For the bullfighters, the suit is a key element in a sport in which showmanship and Las Vegas-styled flash are as essential as athleticism.
“The most important things for a torero is to have a special suit for them,” says Pablo del Castillo, director of a bullfighting museum called the Museo Taurino de Salamanca. “Each torero shows off in his own suit and everything is handmade specifically for [him].”
THE FATHER OF MODERN BULLFIGHTING
Dressing for the part is nothing new. The tradition can be traced to the 18th century and Joaquín Rodríguez, better known as Costillares and recognized as the father of modern bullfighting.
Costillares earned respect first through his talent. Though he grew up working in his father’s slaughterhouse, his exploits in the ring found him held in the same regard as the local royals, says del Castillo. That sparked the idea. If he was going to be seen as a member of the upper class, why not dress like one?
He wore fancy and fine-tailored cropped suit jackets and added “galos de platas,” a design that is similar to the military badges worn by the nobles.
“He wanted to dress like them because they were important people in Sevilla,” says del Castillo, “and he considered himself an important person in the town.”
Two decades after his death, matador fashion took a turn when arguably Spain’s most famous painter, Francisco de Goya, published a series of 33 bullfighting-inspired prints called, “La Tauromaquia.”
Goya did not want his work to portray the nobles in Seville, as that city and Madrid, where he lived, were bullfighting rivals. So he morphed Costillares’ original Spanish look with the styles of French royals. In the early 19th century, Goya had spent time in France painting for French patrons.
“This is the first actual suit called, ‘traje Goyesco,’” says del Castillo while pointing at a bullfighter on a printed poster version of a Goya painting hanging in the museum.
The painting, in effect, changed everything about the look of the suit: The trousers, originally ankle-length, were cut mid-calf. The coats, originally cropped at the ribs, were adjusted to below the hip.
This uniform may have worked in an art museum but for the bullfighters, Goya’s innovations created a challenge. A bull’s horns could easily latch onto the long coat.
Francisco Mounts, or Paquiro, established his legend in the 1840s through his daring work in the ring. He was also a stylemaster, establishing modern matador chic by cropping the jacket back to rib-cage length while keeping the mixture of Spanish and French noble influence, or the “galones de platas.” To separate the matador from the picadors and banderillos – bullfighters who are considered lower ranking – Paquiro would wear gold, while the others wore silver. He was the first to add flashy details to the suit, so that it would reflect his individual personality.
“This was the first time using beads that reflected in the sun. That’s why it is called the ‘suit of lights,’” says del Castillo.
A SUIT OF LIGHTS
For modern-day bullfighters, choosing a design for a suit can be compared to the process by which a person chooses a tattoo. Sometimes they have deep-rooted meanings, and sometimes they don’t.
When de la Rosa stepped inside the Fermín tailor shop back in December, he knew only that he wanted his ninth suit to be a different color than his other suits. He went with charcoal, a dark grey that could almost be mistaken for black.
For the details, he simply plucked a design that caught his eye from the scores of reference books the tailor keeps. He chose a classic look that consists of dainty flowers and leaves, but like what most bullfighters do, he decided to tweak it a bit so that it would reflect personal taste. De la Rosa decided to go with silver beading, not the gold in the photograph. He also made a request one might expect to hear before a shoot at a fashion magazine, not in a small tailor shop in Madrid.
He pointed to his leg and suggested an extra silver stripe on the side of the trousers as a slimming device.
“I wanted something that would look good on me, but also take off weight,” says de la Rosa.
Designs are often driven by more than vanity. Many bullfighters are inspired by religious and historical figures, choosing to wear the saint of their city on their back. Others decide to go for a more complex look, embedding famous artwork in the design.
“Some people wear very classic designs like Enrique Ponce, Joselito and Manzanares. But (Juan José) Podilla wears heavier designs,” says Maestra Nati, another costume designer in Madrid. “He will wear designs of Picasso on his suit. It depends on the personality of the bullfighter.”
Whether the small patterns and elaborate beading are created with meaning or not, the overall look is entirely up to the bullfighter, and once a design has been chosen, the process of creating the suit can begin.
Conche Muñez, a seamstress at Fermín, looks over blood red material as she threads a needle in and out of a coat designed for another bullfighter. She has already sewn in the golden flower embroidery and reflecting jewels, and now, she has finally gotten to the white embroidery that lines the bottom of the coat.
“People do not realize how much work it is. All of it, all the small things are handmade,” says Muñez recently as her hands keep working on a suit. “You think it is one piece, but it’s really 20 little pieces, and every little piece has so many things in it. It takes a lot of time and people.”
Nancy Flechas, sitting next to Muñez, works on a separate coat, and says although there are only 11 other employees under Fermín’s roof, there can be up to “50 people working on one suit” from external firms.
“When you see a suit, you just see one piece, but then every single detail on the suit is usually done by various different people,” she says.
Flechas points to one of the machos, or small tassels, Muñez was handling that consisted of intricate patterns, spiral threading and tiny knots. “Two people can work on that,” she says. The beading and threadwork require even more people, she says, as different patterns are carried out by specialists in specific designs.
The sewing is not easy. Muñez, who focused on coats, struggled to push a needle past a rigid and stiff seven-layered fabric, which is meant to give the bullfighter protection.
“It is very hard to sew through. Look at it,” she says as she held up her hand and wiggled her fingers. Flesh was dangling. “Sometimes it is so hard that the needles breaks and that it goes in the finger.”
“The thing is it’s a tough job,” Muñez says of her profession. “That’s why there are very few people doing this.”
MANY HANDS, ONE CREATION
In Madrid, there are only six shops, including Fermín, that specialize in bullfighting uniforms. The materials are just as exclusive. These are not spools found on just any store shelf.
“All the threads and materials we use are not used for party dresses, they are [fabrics] that are only made for the torero,” says designer Nati while she grabs a suit off a mannequin in her shop. She says the materials are made and imported from either France or Barcelona, and they contain a special combination of fabrics.
“Many years ago they used to make suits out of cotton, but it was very hard to get the stain of the [bull’s] blood out,” says Nati through a translator. “Now they use a mix of polyester that is super because whatever blood stain, you can wash it and it comes out.”
Although they are both meant to shine and look dazzling in the arena, the coats and pants are created with different functions in mind, says Piedad Muñoz, who specializes in pants at Fermín. The coat is made for protection, and the pants are made for movement.
“Razo” is a thick colorful material used on the coat as well. “Punto” is an elastic, almost spandex material that fits “tight to the bullfighter’s leg, but it allows movement,” she says through a translator.
And the designs are carefully placed on the side of the trousers. Inside the leg, there are no designs or ornaments. They would restrict a bullfighter’s movements.
This is how most every bullfighter suit has been made in the past century. And designers such as Fuentes work closely with the bullfighters to create a look that will impress in the ring. This is where the rock star-inspired glam comes in.
“Confronting a bull is no more or no less to show off to the girl that you like,” says Fuentes, “showing them how courageous you are.”
The day de la Rosa was in the shop, he was anticipating wearing his personal work of art at an upcoming bullfight later that month, when he would help slay a bull in Madrid’s famous Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas.
“Every time you use a new suit it’s like playing with a new toy,” says the bullfighter as he walked out of the shop. “I’m excited to wear it.”