The Manila shawl, from China to the world of flamenco


The shawl in fashion and in flamenco
The shawl in fashion and in flamenco

The Manila shawl is strongly associated with flamenco dancing, even though it is also an accessory for dresses that is also used by cantaoras and moreover, in certain periods, it has also been a garment for everyday use. It drew its name from the capital of the Philippines, a former Spanish colony, but its origins lie in China; traditionally, they were made of silk and were hand-embroidered with motifs drawn from nature, mostly flowers, and also birds.


The Manila shawl is anaccessory for dresses. Some cantaoras (female flamenco singers) wear it- it is not unusual to see Estrella Morente wearing a shawl -, but it has been especially bailaoras (female flamenco dancers) who have turned this garment, which first entered Spanish wardrobes- particularly in Andalusia -in the sixteenth century, into something that is strongly associated with flamenco.

Originally, the Manila shawl,made of silk and hand-embroidered, comes from China, but it owes its name to the capital of the former Spanish colony of the Philippines (Manila). Manila harbour became an obligatory stop for Spanish boats returning to the metropolis, laden with Oriental products. This was how Spanish merchants discovered the shawls in the 15th century, and started taking them back to Spain. 

After a short time had passed, the Chinese decorations on the shawls were replaced by local motifs; the dragons, bamboo and pagodas disappeared and rose-shaped decorative motifs and birds, roses, carnations and other flowers appeared, each of which had its own meaning (iris = purity; daisy = impatience; rose = secret; sunflower = loyalty…). Also, it was in Spain where the fringes were added to them.

Little by little, the Manila shawl became a normal garment of women's clothing, particularly in Seville, among women of means from high society and the working classes alike. The fashion passed and the shawl stopped being part of everyday clothing, even though it remained associated with the flamenco wardrobe, especially in the case of bailaoras. 

The shawl in flamenco

It was the Seville school which gambled the most on the mantón de Manila (Manila shawl). Thus, it is names like those of Pastora Imperio, La Niña de los Peines, La Macarrona and Matilde Coralthat are most strongly connected with the Manila shawl.

The Manila shawl lends a degree of showiness to both the dancing and the movement of the bailaora, it has its own complicated technique, which is only within the reach of bailaoras who already have a great mastery of flamenco dancing. The most difficult element is knowing how to move the shawl to the meterand making it move as though it was part of one's body.

Cantaoras like Estrella Morente or Esperanza Fernández sport a shawl in their performances
Cantaoras like Estrella Morente or Esperanza Fernández sport a shawl in their performances

© Paco Sánchez

Matilde Coral has been one of the great champions of the shawl, continuing the work carried out by Pastora Imperio. At present, Blanca del Rey is famous, among other reasons, for her 'soleá del mantón', and other names such as those of the Compañía Andaluza de Danza (Andalusian Dance Company), Belén Maya andMaría Pagés are also closely associated with the Manila shawl.

At present, and already over the last few years, the Manila shawl has become fashionable again beyond the milieu of dancing, and it is used as an accessory for evening dresses, or even as a key part of elegant evening dresses. 

How to find the most appropriate shawl for you

The shawl must be sufficiently large to comfortably cover both your outstretched arms, with material to spare. It must not be mistaken with the pañoleta (a smaller triangular decorative shawl worn on the shoulders), which accompanies faralaes dresses. It is also important for it not to weigh too much, so as to make it possible to handle it well.

If you are looking for a shawl, there are plenty of available options on the market. The most common colours are black, white, ivory and red. The most classical models are those of the cigarreros (cigarette-makers) -immortalised in 'Carmen', by Bizet- with large roses and carnations embroidered in vivid colours, and those of the macetones (flowerpots), whose motifs mix bamboo and pots that are full of flowers. You should not overlook two other traditional models: the one with black and ivory embroidery and the 'isabelino' one, which has embroidered corners, whereas its centre is either empty or features small branches of flowers.

The shawl can also be a good accessory for dressing up, not just in a flamenco costume. It is perfect in combination with an evening dress, lending your image a very Spanish touch, as well as being elegant. In this case, you can pick whichever colour you wish; white and red are particularly becoming.

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