Pamela Baez wearing a sequined rainbow striped colorful statement gown with a long veil

Puerto Rican Vintage

We met Pamela Baez of Johnny & June vintage store to discuss and photograph Puerto Rican vintage. All the garments in the photos are from Baez’s personal collection.

  • Liisa Jokinen

  • Mar 7, 2023

Garments: Pamela Baez / Johnny & June

At the beginning of the 1900s, Puerto Rico had a booming manufacturing and garment industry. The industry’s golden years were in the 30s-50s.

Factories based in New York turned to Puerto Rico to find cheaper labor after there were laws passed in NY to regulate the manufacturing industry.

Thousands of Puerto Rican women worked in factories and from home. This industry was concentrated in Mayagüez and other cities in the western area. The garments were cut in the US, and then sent to Puerto Rico to be sewn, and ready pieces shipped back to NYC again.

By the middle of the 20th century, the sewing industry in Puerto Rico was the industry with the second largest exports and the first source of employment for Puerto Rican women with limited economic resources.

If you find Puerto Rican vintage clothing, it is most likely homemade. Most families (especially poor to middle class) would have their dresses made at home by their mothers. They would get looks from magazines and replicate them at home or if the person had more means with local seamstresses. Although the clothes were made at home, the fashions were influenced by Spain and New York.

Most of the Puerto Rican vintage day dresses were made of cotton, which is ideal for the climate. If the clothes were not made at home, they were imported from the US. Especially in the 70s-90s a lot of American brands entered the market.

The 50s custom handmade dress is from the San Juan-based Electroshock vintage store. The 40s-50s flower headpiece was probably custom-made in Puerto Rico. The vintage 22kt gold cross with pearls is a gift from Baez’s aunt.

A mantilla is a traditional Spanish and Latin American lace or silk shawl typically worn to cover the head and shoulders when going to church. It was often worn over a high comb called a peineta. The mantillas Pamela is wearing on her hips are handmade and from the 40s.

The Puerto Rican handmade crochet dress is probably from the 70s and from vintage store Ojola. The bustier is from late 40s–early 50s.

The late 40s sheer nightgown is most likely made in Puerto Rico because at that point lots of women worked in textile industry.

The parasol is made in France and from the 40s-50s. It either rains or shines in Puerto Rico, so a parasol or an umbrella is a must-accessory!

The lace in the straps of this 50s handmade dress are most likely mundillo, handmade bobbin lace that is special for Puerto Rico. The mundillo capital of Puerto Rico is Moca which has an annual mundillo festival and a museum dedicated to the craft.

‘Mundillo’ means ‘little world’, referring to the cylindrical pillow on which the lace maker (’Mundillista’) weaves intricate designs. The decorative lace is created using wooden bobbins about the diameter of a pencil. Depending on the pattern, as few as two dozen or as many as several hundred bobbins may be used.

Mundillo lace has been used to decorate tablecloths, handkerchiefs, shirt collars, wedding dresses, baptismal gowns, and the cloths used to adorn religious icons. Like many fashions, bobbin lace was brought to Puerto Rico from Spain.

Carnivals are a big part of Puerto Rican culture. Carnivals are usually day-long celebrations with masked dancing, parades, and floats representing local institutions and companies. A big part of the carnival is the coronation of the carnival queen.

This late 70s–early 80s dress was custom made for a carnival queen. It has a separate dress and cape that can be worn on top of it. The dress was purchased from El Baul de Lola vintage store.