Apparently it was not a common item of dress in China, because it did not match well with the women´s traditional outfit, so it soon came into disuse. On the other hand the Chinese continued making them with the only aim of exporting them abroad. The Chinese production of silk embroideries came in three forms: smooth silk in bright colours, embroidered silk and parts of dresses also embroidered. The Chinese embroideries were highly appreciated, not only for there fine and delicate finishing but also for there beautiful combination of colour, something for which the Spanish and Mexican high society and Court were highly enthusiastic about.
They arrived at these places even as decorations for masculine clothing, like in dress coats, waistcoats and linings, whereas for the women they were used on dresses, stoles, and handkerchieves, undoubtedly predecessors of the shawl. Commerce between Europe and America opened out a new and definite route for the Chinese merchants, who found the right connection in the colonies of the New World to get their new goods to the European markets. From the end of the 16 century, the oriental commercial traffic started to go well via the Philipines to Europe.
Manila soon became the main receiver of goods which the Chinese merchants transported in their own boats, playing a definite part towards that constant flow of products. It became the great distribution centre, the necessary link of a market that moved luxury merchandise: Chinese silks, cotton fabrics, raw or branched silk, porcelain, spices and many other materials and objects appreciated in Europe. What seems unquestionable is that the Manila shawl as known today is a feminine attire which we did not know much about until the 17 century. It was then when people started wearing them in the Colony and became popular between travellers and writers with a strong regional flavour. Its attractive and colourful forms would explain its previous acceptance in the colonies from where it was introduced into Spain.
Its definite incorporation to the Spanish feminine wardrobe arrived after a long course in time: a journey starting off in China, where the material and characteristic styles of the embroideries came from, and where the shawls were made, which were then taken to Manila, and from there they were taken to American lands. There, they were adapted fist, to Mexican shawls, where they possibly developed and enriched until they achieved the dimensions and composition of the actual shawl during the 18 century; so it was first used in the colonies.
And last of all, in the 19 century it was used as an accessory of the Spanish women´s dress.
This course was mostly cultural and so long process distinguished by a series of additional elements was carried out, each element coming from the different traditions that interceded in its final form. But Mexico was only a necessary step for the concrete configuration and responsibility that determined the definite forms and attractiveness of this shawl. Equipped with these qualities it finally reached Spain. This is how we can see in various paintings, illustrations and literary tales of the
19 century, the manila shawl show off all their splendour, elaborated with traditional Spanish styles.
After it was introduced into the use of the Court it became more popular, and it changed fro being exclusively of upper class to an indispensable accessory for the women of working class.
Here we reach the end of its complex trajectory, this is maybe a reflection of the shawls´ own originality and ornamental richness. We do not doubt the authenticity of the authors that believe in a preferably Chinese origin, but hold a brief for the Mexican, or those versions that due to the scientific pragmatism attest its Spanish creation. The truth is that through its history, we can see they are all right, because all the lines of argument must be taken a complementary. They all contributed to create a piece of art, which like a puzzle had different motives, colours and new designs added to.
They all collaborated to create such a traditional Spanish garment. But as it was not Spanish in origin, it needed this culture to give it its final and definite identity.
We can firmly affirm that its effective incorporation and its use in the Spanish culture was so effective that since the 19 century until now it has continued.
It does not seem that was the way followed in America, where slowly the women topped using the shawls, maybe forgotten, like so many other cultural components, due to its obvious colonial reference after the independence of most of its overseas possessions in the first third of the century. This rejection could have been determined because soon it became another symbol of “typical Spanish”, thus in the metropolis it suffered this same process of national appropriation.
It was certain that it was the Spaniards who denied the shawls had any Mexican origin, and they made it clear giving it name: Manila Shawl as it came to be called in Spain. It could have been influenced by an important fact, after the 18 century, when the direct commercial trade with the Philippines started. This way a more direct secure and faster route was inaugurated from Manila to Cadiz, and became one of the many mercantile innovations of that time.
In 1795, the Royal Company of Philippines was established, a fact that recognized the importance of the direct trade with that region.
It was exactly at this time when the Manila shawls arrived in some North American cities, like Boston or Philadelphia, where they supplied the feminine fashion of the big families of those places.
With these affirmations we reach the element that underlines the undoubted proposal of the shawls Chinese origin. The were made there for the foreigners that ordered them, creating some pieces that they never used themselves, different to Mexico, but that possibly never stopped doing when they saw the success it reached in America and Europe.
It all indicates that the thesis of all shawls Chinese origin with later Mexican innovations is the most reasonable. It is doubtful the Chinese, the inventors and main craftsmen of the silk industry and its embroideries would stop sewing goods that soon became a very beneficial economic resource. It seems credible that it s confection was added to the textile tradition of the Mexicans, who had the commercial routes with the rest of the American continent assured.
The Mexicans notably influenced the actual forms of the shawl, giving them the colours that propitiated its ultimate use and popularisation in Spain. What is certain is that both trades complemented themselves and both cultures have left their mark on their compositions. As business was maintained in both directions during the whole colonial era, the shawls arrived in Spain from both sources. The Philippine trade developed in an exclusive way, from the mid 19 century when it became the last redoubt of the Spanish colonial empire, until its final epilogue in 1898. This almost proves the predominance of shawls produced in China over those from Mexico there are in Spain.
The decline of the silk industry manufacture in Mexico at the end of the 18 century would support this argument, after that, they probably continued embroidering in Mexico but on silk brought from China. Finally, the development of fashion helps to express this statement: the taste for anything Chinese, not only for dressing, rules in Europe in the late 19 century and a good part of the 20 century.
The later changes in taste and beginning of its manufacture and commercialisation in Spain determined he progressive abandoning of these designs.