Spanish Mantilla Combs (Peineta) Part I

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This is the first of two guides I shall write on Spanish mantilla combs or Peinetas. In this first one I will be concentrating upon the historical aspect of how they developed. I shall also show some of the beautiful antique Peinitas that have passed through my hands while I have been trading on eBay.

The name Spanish mantilla combs is often used as a kind of umbrella term for any decorative hair comb that has a high upstanding cresting that rises up proud from the top of the head when the comb is placed in position. However, the Spanish mantilla comb or Peinita, to give it the proper name, is part of the beautiful and traditional native dress which is worn in certain parts of Spain, notably Andalusia, on festive occasions.

We are all familiar with this kind of Peinita, where the enormous cresting rises anything from eight to twelve inches above the wearers head, and supports a beautiful lace veil. In Spanish tradition white veils were worn by young and unmarried women, whereas black was favoured by older married ladies. This is because mourning was observed more strictly in Spain than some other countries, and older women were often in mourning for some relative or other. Therefore it became customary for them to dress entirely in black when they reached a certain age, even when they were not in mourning.


According to the Wikepedia dictionary the mantilla is a lightweight lace or silk scarf worn over the head and shoulders, often over a high comb, by women in Spain and Latin America.

The mantilla is a traditional Spanish garment, which has a special significance in Andalusia. Its origins go back to the Iberian culture, when women used translucent veils to completely cover themselves when they went out in public. This covering up can be attributed to the Arabic influence in the region. It was called the manto, and a shorted shoulder length version was called the mantilla. The word comes from the Spanish diminutive of manta, or cape. The manta was worn throughout Spain. However, each region adapted it to both social and physical determining factors, such as climate. In this way, for example, in the coldest areas, the mantilla was used like an outer coat, made in more substantial fabrics. In the warmer areas, mantillas were made in light and smooth weaves, making a garment more luxurious and ornamental.

The translucent lace mantilla first appeared in the 17th century. The great Spanish court painter Velasquez painted several famous portraits of lovely ladies in this guise. However the lace veil was not yet draped over the high Peinita, but simply placed across the head in a becoming manner. These lace mantillas were worn not only for attending church but for all occasions when an aristocratic lady went out in public. In such situations the veil was usually drawn modestly across the face to conceal the wearer’s identity. However, it is clear that it could also function as a vehicle for flirtation!

Picture 1 – The Duchess of Alba wearing a lace mantilla, by Goya

The long veil draped over the Peinita with which we are familiar today evolved in the early 19th century among the ladies of the court. Picture 1 shows a famous portrait by the Spanish painter Goya of the Duchess of Alba, a famous aristocratic beauty of the day. We can see that she is now wearing both a high Peineta and a translucent black lace veil together, although the mantilla veil is not yet draped over the comb.


By the 1830s the high Peineta or Spanish style comb was worn throughout Europe. The fashion at this time was for very high and complex hairdressings such as those illustrated in picture 2. This is taken from a hand tinted and engraved fashion plate in a magazine of the day called The World of Fashion, and dates from 1832. We can see that the two fashionable ladies have elaborate updos which contain all manner of ornaments like flowers, feathers and great stiffened loops of hair which were unashamedly false. Supporting these great coiffures both women have high Spanish combs which appear to be beautifully pierced into complex designs.


Picture 2 – Fashion plate from The World of Fashion, 1830s showing models with complex hairdressing and high combs.

These high combs were made in various materials such as metal, horn and tortoiseshell. The latter was the favourite material, the so called blonde variety, which is the colour of dark honey, was favoured above all others.

The next three pictures show a selection of high Spanish style combs from this period which have passed through my store over the last two years.

Picture 3 shows a Peineta in the favourite blonde tortoiseshell which measures 9 inches high by 6 inches wide. This one has a beautiful lacy openwork design and is entirely hand cut.

Picture 3: Peineta hand cut from the so called blonde variety of tortoiseshell.

Picture 4 shows another tortoiseshell comb, but this one is solid without the openwork carving. The chief beauty of this comb is the unusual fluted design, which is like the petals of a flower. Notice too the attractive random mottling of light orange and yellow spots upon a dark ground which is one of the most beautiful features of natural tortoiseshell.

Picture 4: Early 19th century hair comb in the dark mottled variety of tortoiseshell.

Genuine tortoiseshell has nothing to do with land tortoises but is obtained from the shells of marine turtles, notably the shell of the Hawksbill Turtle. I shall not describe the incredible cruelty with which the turtles were deprived of their shells at the height of this cruel trade. Thankfully this creature is now a protected species and the place of genuine shell has been taken by more environmentally friendly synthetics. But more of that at a later stage.

The beautiful honey coloured comb in picture 3 is taken from the beast plate or plastron of the turtle, which produces semi transparent material that is often called blonde for its colour. Less expensive, but just as beautiful, the mottled variety was derived from the back plates of the shell.


Picture 5: – Peineta of gilt filigree metal, mid 19th century.

Perhaps more environmentally friendly is the beautiful silver gilt filigree Peineta illustrated in picture 4. This ornament is somewhat later, and the degree of elaboration of the metal work shows that it dates from well into the 19th century. The effect of the filigree work is reminiscent of gold lace, and it must have appeared very beautiful with a lace veil draped over it.

The effect of fashionable ladies wearing these giant combs caused a great deal of mockery in the popular newspapers of the day. Picture 6 is a copy of a cartoon which makes fun of them. We can see that the combs are represented as being so large that they blocked the streets, stopped the traffic, and even caused injury to other pedestrians!

Picture 6: 19th century cartoon making fun of huge fashionable hair combs.

The result of all this public mockery is that by the mid 1830s the high complex hairstyles and the great Peinetas which had helped to sustain them fell completely out of fashion in non-Spanish countries. However, this was by no means the end of the fashion for the mantilla comb, which continued to flourish in the Spanish speaking lands.


Isabella II of Spain (1830 – 1904) was very fond of fine lace, and she used her influence to make the lace mantilla fashionable at court. She and her ladies wore it for many ceremonies both public and private. This led to the high Peineta and mantilla veil being widely adopted by sophisticated city dwellers during the course of the 19th century.

The high comb and mantilla also played a part in Spanish politics in the so-called Mantilla Conspiracy. In 1870 Isabella was deposed, and the Cortes (Spanish parliament) decided to reinstate the monarchy under a new dynasty. The Duke of Aosta was elected King as Amadeo I in 1871, but this was a widely unpopular choice with the Spanish people. In Madrid the wearing of the mantilla was now so deeply rooted in popular tradition that it was converted into a symbol of opposition to the foreign fashions which Amadeo I and his wife Maria Victoria attempted to introduce. The protest was led by women who refused to wear the foreign hats and bonnets and instead preferred their native comb and mantilla.

Another famous lady whose fashion influence helped to popularise this fashion was Eugenie, Empress of the French and wife of Emperor Napoleon III. Born Eugenie de Montijo, Countess of Teba, the Empress was of Spanish ancestry. By her beauty, elegance, and charm of manner she contributed greatly to the brilliance of the imperial regime and was influential in introducing many new fashions to the French court. One of these was the ornamental hair comb and mantilla which was widely adopted by French ladies.

Meanwhile in its native Spain the use of the high Peineta and mantilla veil has enjoyed mixed fortunes. After 1900 its use generally declined, except for special occasions such as Holy Week and bullfights. However the mantilla has continued to this day to be worn in Andalusia.

Picture 7: Spanish ladies in their traditional black attire for attending church in the 1930s.

In Holy Week it became a tradition that ladies dressed in black clothes, wearing a tortoiseshell Peineta and a black lace mantilla. These clothes were worn for visiting churches and for processions. Picture 7, which dates from the 1930s, shows a painting of Spanish ladies wearing the mantilla comb and black lace veil for church attendance.

Picture 8: Young Spanish woman wearing the peineta with a white lace mantilla veil.

The famous Feria de Abril in Seville was also an opportunity for wear the mantilla, white in this case. White mantillas similar to those worn by the pretty young lady in picture 8 were also worn for attending the bullfights.


In the late 19th century the high comb also returned to popularity in Britain and other parts of Europe with the production of Bizet’s opera Carmen in Paris in 1875. This promoted a real vogue for tall combs which remained fashionable until the end of the 19th century. The most favoured material was still tortoiseshell, both real and synthetic. By this period celluloid was widely being used to simulate the natural material in much cheaper substitutes which were widely available.

Picture 9: Fashionable young lady wearing a high comb in her fashionable coiffure, contemporary cabinet photograph 1870s.

Picture 9 is taken from a British cabinet photo of the 1870s and shows a very fashionable young lady in the dress of the day. She is wearing a high mantilla style comb with an elaborate pierced openwork design in her complex updo. We can see that voluminous coiffures which required a great deal of false hair, had again returned to fashion. 

Picture 10: Mantilla style comb of natural horn dyed to resemble tortoiseshell, circa 1880-1900

The beautiful horn comb illustrated in picture 8 is an example of a similar ornament dating from the period 1870- 1900. This one has been dyed to simulate the ever popular and much more expensive tortoiseshell. The regularity of the design shows that it was probably pressed out in a factory and then hand finished.

Horn was one of the most popular materials for hair combs throughout the 19th century, not only because the material was cheap, but also because it could be easily treated to obtain a number of decorative effects. It could be dyed a range of colours and was often treated to imitate the distinctive tortoise pattern of the more expensive material. This was achieved by painting it with various dyes and chemicals. Sometimes it was done with great artistry such that it is difficult to distinguish the horn from the genuine shell, particularly when two or three different colours were used.

Horn could also be clarified so as to be almost translucent. This gives it the attractive colour of honey, and is a feature of many combs of the period. It could also be carved, pierced, stamped and when heated, twisted into ornamental shapes in a plastic manner. Horn is an extremely flexible material, and when heated it can be bent, pierced and stretched into all manner of forms, almost like plastic.

In the first part of the 19th century, the making of combs was still a handicraft, and many combs were made in small local manufactories.  However by the mid century they were being produced in vast numbers by means of mechanical die-stamping. Polishing and finishing, including painting the horn with chemicals to simulate the tortoise markings, was usually undertaken in the UK as a cottage industry by women and children who were the families of the comb-makers. The making of horn combs in the USA has also been well documented and was concentrated around the town of Leominster.

These fan shaped and frequently very large Spanish combs were worn in a characteristic manner, being placed in the side or back of the hairdressing at an acute angle, and in such a way that the tall heading stood up proud. This enabled the often beautiful openwork decoration or the decorative effect which had been applied to the material, to be viewed from all angles, and for the details to be seen effectively outlined against the light. This manner of wearing the decorative comb is shown in picture 9. It is also illustrated in many contemporary cabinet photos and fashion plates of the period in both Britain and the USA. 

Towards the end of the 19th century hair styles became simpler and less voluminous. The huge combs fell out of favour, only to return with the Art Deco period of the 1920s. However that story, and the continuing tale of the Peineta, will be told in the second of my guides.

Dont forget to check out my store for a collection of Spanish mantilla style and other antique hair combs!

You can read more about Peinitas and their history here in my guides on Spanish mantilla combs.

Search here for Spanish mantilla combs in my store.
Search here for 19th century hair combs in my store.

Further Reading

For those who would like to do some wider reading on the fascinating subject of comb collecting, the following books are strongly recommended:

Mary BACHMAN, Collectors Guide to Hair Combs, Collector Books, 1998.

This wonderful little book is an invaluable source of information on the huge range of Art Deco combs which were produced in the USA. Although the text is not extensive it is well arranged in logical sections according to materials and styles. The work is packed with delightful colour pictures of the author’s own amazing collection. There are also 19th century and ethnic examples but the concentration is definitely upon the vast range of designs which are found in celluloid and other synthetic hair combs of the early 20th century.

Norma HAGUE, Combs and Hair Accessories. Antique Pocket Guides. Pub. in the USA by Seven Hills Books, Cincinatti.

This little book complements Bachman because it concentrates on British and European examples, and covers the period 1780 to the 1950s. This too is illustrated with the author's own collection. It is a pity that the pictures are monochrome. However, the great strength of this work is the scholarliness and comprehensiveness of its text. The author has placed hair accessories in their social and historical context, and includes much valuable and fascinating information about the art movements and other events which influenced fashion. The text is arranged chronologically, making it easy to use.

Together these two small books constitute the two 'bibles' of hair comb collecting.

A further more scholarly source is another article by Norma Hague:

Norma HAGUE, 'Ornamental Haircombs, 1780-1880.' Costume, The Journal of the Costume Society. 16, 1982 pp 23-32.

This extremely detailed article is written from the perspective of the costume historian and refers in some detail to contemporary sources, customs and historical events as a background to the development of hair accessories.

Jen CRUSE, The Comb, its development and history. Robert Hale, 2007.

The publishers note describes this as the first major book in English to deal in depth with combs and hairpins around the world. Having well over 500 colour and black and while illustrations the text surveys the subject from ancient cultures to the mid 20th century. The development of the combmakers craft is recounted upto and including the development of plastics. The book illustrates the use of combs as articles of grooming and dressing as well as for ornamental use. An in depth and essential reference book for both collectors and scholors. Some portions of the book draw heavily upon earlier sources such as Hague (1982, 1984)

Another book which is of interest purely from an illustrative point of view is Evelyn HAERTIG, Antique Combs and Purses. Carmel, California, Gallery Graphics Press.

This is a large and expensive 'coffee table' book, with many sumptuous illustrations in both mono and colour. Unfortunately it is let down by the poor quality of the text. This is messy and fragmented, and unlike the two works above appears to follow no logical plan in its organization and is difficult to use.

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