The Genteel
April 17, 2021


Plate III: Traditional women’s costume, district of Tinta, province of Canchis, Cusco, Peru 2007. Image courtesy of MATE.
Plate VII: Traditional women's costume,
province of Espinar, Cusco, Peru 2007. 
Image courtesy of MATE.

Seldom does one associate the elaborate construction and opulence of couture with the richly coloured and textured garments found throughout the Andean region of Peru.

But through the Alta Moda exhibition, esteemed Peruvian photographer Mario Testino aims to bridge that gap; to broaden our perspective of what is considered couture and where we can locate it. In this case, at an elevation of 11,000 feet above sea level, in Cusco, Peru. Alta Moda includes both photographs by Testino and gowns from Christian Dior's Fall 2005 Couture collection, inspired by John Galliano's trip to Peru in 2005.

"Alta Moda is a very special endeavour for Mario because it's completely different from what we're used to seeing from him," says Martha Zegarra, Director of MATE, Testino's art foundation housed in a nineteenth century mansion in the thriving artistic district of Barranco, in Lima. 

Aiming to showcase the photographer's personal work as well as support local and international artists, MATE opened its doors in July 2012 with Testino's exhibit Todo o Nada, a collection of fashion images capturing beauties like Sienna Miller and Natalia Vodianova. With MATE came a growing commitment by Testino to endorse Peru's artistic and cultural patrimony, a mission he has taken to heart and materialised with various projects (most recently, the April 2013 issue of Vogue Paris, which was guest edited by him and dedicated to Peru).

"Alta Moda originates from his discovery of a collection of costumes belonging to Leonardo Arana Yampe, founder of the dance association Filigranas Peruanas, and includes around 1,500 garments," Zegarra continues. Filigranas Peruanas is one of Cusco's largest dance associations, with over 33 years of experience and more than 600 dancers. Testino began photographing the ensembles as a personal project in 2007, producing 37 photographs that are included in the exhibit book - 27 of which are on display at MATE. The photographs capture everyday garments as well as costumes used in religious festivals and pilgrimages, all made-to-measure, hand-embroidered and dyed in the region of their origin. 

The MATE Gallery exterior. Image courtesy of MATE.

Testino's larger-than-life images, spread throughout six of the seven gallery rooms at MATE, allow the viewer to zoom in on the textures, patterns and vibrant colours of the ensembles. The intensity of the portraits are amplified as the models (young men and women who are part of the association) are placed in front of a muted, turn-of-the-century backdrop with a darkened marble pillar on one side and a vase and flora on the other. It is a reproduction of the studio backdrop Peruvian photographer Martin Chambi (1891-1973) used in his studio portraits, lent to Testino by the Martin Chambi Photographic Archive in Cusco. 

Indeed, the theme and structure of the exhibit lends to a narrative that traces the history of artistic and material culture in Peru, yet does so with a vision that allows their relevance and vibrancy in the present to shine. Testino builds upon the legacy of Chambi, capturing the portraiture ambiance of that era. Yet, we see Testino's talent as a contemporary image-maker in the empowered poses of the male dancers and in captivating gazes of the stylised women.

The exhibit is neither organised by region nor dance, but instead an aesthetic order took priority. Although no labels accompany the photographs, trained guides or an audio accompaniment unravel the history and cultural significance of the garments for visitors. 

...the theme and structure of the exhibit lends to a narrative that traces the history of artistic and material culture in Peru.

Take, for example, the ensemble worn in the lead image of the exhibit: the plate VII entitled "Traditional women's costume, province of Espinar, Cusco, Peru 2007." The exhibit guide and plate descriptions found in the exhibit book describe the materials used and their meaning, putting the photograph into context.

The montera, or hat, is made of velveteen with golden ribbon sewn atop, decorated with a small red pleated fretwork in the front and back, identifying the wearer as unmarried women. From the montera hangs colourful wool ribbons, adorned with cardboard stars that hold circular mirrors, all covered in glossy paper. When light reflects on these shiny objects, a signal is produced, attracting men. The act is known as Qoyllurichiy, to shine, in Quechua. As with other photographs in the exhibit, the model's back faces the spectator, exposing the numerous colourful ribbons embroidered with flowers and geometric figures that adorn the lliklla (shawl), and the pollera (skirt).

The final exhibit room is reserved for five ensembles from John Galliano's Fall 2005 Couture Collection for Christian Dior. "We worked directly with the house [of Dior], and they generously lent the garments from their archive for the exhibit," Zegarra explained. A third of the way through the runway show, a tulle layered skirt embroidered in wool with cascading flora, emerged on the runway. Covering the model's shoulders was a fire-red shawl embroidered in the same motif, tied delicately in the front and at the waist. This and other looks from the collection were inspired by the dresses Galliano saw on a visit he made to the highlands of Peru.

It was, "...a detour into froufrou Peruvian costume,” Sarah Mower wrote in her review for of the opulent runway collection that paid homage to the romantic and rich history of Christian Dior's couture. It was a collection that revisited the splendor of 19th century Parisian gowns, the emergence of the New Look and the decadence of Dior's Hollywood clientele. Yet, it incorporated exaggerated twists and turns with the use of light fabrics, altered silhouettes and extravagant colours. The dresses are displayed in a darkened room, almost as if quarantined in a corner of the world, far from the aftermaths of the controversy that continues to surround the designer.

Dior Couture Fall 2005. Source:

The Dior pieces, "perfectly close the circle between our national culture and the wider world of fashion," writes Testino in his opening essay for the exhibit book. Much like Galliano's extravagant 2005 interpretation of past Dior creations, the dresses and costumes men and women use for festivities and on a daily basis in the Andean region have been influenced by cultural and social encounters throughout the decades.

For example, upon the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century, the indigenous population adopted and adapted the pollera. The women of the district of Ccatcca, in the province of Quispicanchi, are known for wearing between six and fifteen layers of black skirts, colourfully embroidered in wool at the hem (as seen in plate XV of the exhibit). 

Synthetic fibers and manufactured materials have blended in with the elaborate techniques and natural fibers used since Pre-Columbian times, attesting to the vitality of these garments and their makers. Not only does the exhibit serve as a visual testimony of the garments from the Cusco region, but it also challenges the viewer: to consider the fashions of the Andean region not as relics or static but as a modern practice, being made anew by dressmakers and communities, enriched with ancestral craftsmanship and designs.

You can view the 27 photographs on display by visiting Google Art Project



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.