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Candomblé and Its Living Garments


This dissertation analyses how dress mediates identification processes in Candomblé religious houses in São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia. Dress is the primary thread that weaves notions of gender, race, and class with the discussion of authenticity and heritage in the development of Candomblé. This work draws from a variety of perspectives including, design techniques and procedures; performance studies and interdisciplinary approaches to theories of gender and racial melancholia; new interpretations of ethnographic models; and the historical developments of Afro-Brazilian religions in Brazil.

Religious contemporary dress worn in Candomblé retains traces of a hybrid colonial style that incorporated elements from Europe, Brazil, and Africa. Through its attachment to the past, dress helps Candomblé practitioners perform choreographies that reenact orixás' mythological stories and telegraph meaning to practitioners and the audience. As in many other religions, Afro-Brazilian religious dress has particular significance as a form of non-verbal communication through the way in which it identifies seniority, rank, and religious association.

This research argues that black women's bodies dressed in their typical Baiana costume and working on the streets of Salvador serve to preserve the memory of the working women that have inhabited that space since the colonial times. Their bodies exposed on the street and their images used as objects for consumption, black women perform a memory that mimics Brazilian colonial models that appropriated women's bodies as commodity. As the "living" memory of a Brazilian past Baianas working in Salvador's historical sites are conflated with architectural buildings. In this open-air museum Baianas and their costume perform blackness and are perceived as if providing a sense of "authenticity" and legitimization to encounters with tourists who seek African traditions and a connection with Afro-Brazilian culture.

The analysis of Candomblé religious dress as performance contributes to the discussion of how practitioners negotiate gender representation during religious ceremonies and how they wear dress to conform or transgress codes of heteronormativity. It is in the context of rituals, religious and secular festivals that this dissertation understands dress as a mediator for the expression of faith and pleasure.

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