Felisa Rincón de Gautier, also known as Doña Fela, was the first woman mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the first woman mayor of a capital city in America. Most of the young people know her because there is a parking lot named after her, but her story is much more interesting than what anyone could have ever imagined. Before becoming mayor for 22 years, Doña Fela was a fashion designer. The Museum of the Americas in Old San Juan held an exhibition until December 31st about Felisa’s life and her history with fashion and politics.
The Puerto Rican Fashion History Council created the exhibition, and they bring the life of a woman of vanguard and fashion icon to younger people. The show is accompanied by the work of various Puerto Rican fashion designers who made costumes inspired by Doña Fela and her style.
Felisa was a pharmacist before becoming a fashion designer. Later on, she opened two stores in Old San Juan: a flower shop and a fashion house called “Felisa’s Style Shop.” Four things stand out throughout the museum, apart from her love for fashion, that show her style: hand fans, wigs, pearl necklaces, and sunglasses.
The exhibit is separated into three halls: black, red, and white. When you enter the museum, there is a timeline of Felisa’s life starting with when she was born in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, in 1897. The timeline points out essential events in her life, like how she was part of the women who voted for the first time in 1932, herself being the fifth woman to register. She did important things like inaugurating the primary maternal school in La Perla and organizing the Mayor’s Association in which she was elected president. The collection contains different garments worn by Mrs. Rincón de Gautier and also keeps a wedding dress made by Felisa for her niece Celia Elvira Clausell’s Gautier, in 1963, along with pictures of the wedding day.
If you have not fallen into the charm of this amazing woman yet, you might wanna know that Times Magazine and Life magazine dedicated articles to her. She received the “order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem” in New York, had a Yankee Stadium game dedicated to her, and she was part of the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy. Lajos Markos, a Hungarian-American artist, made an oil portrait of her, which was borrowed for the exhibition from the “Casa Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier” collection (which should also be visited), along with other objects. And if that wasn’t enough, she had a whole musical about her life called “Fela,” which was presented at the Tapia Theatre in 1984.
Famous Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell drew Mrs. Rincón for the first time when he was only 14 years old while working for her as a messenger. Throughout the years, he kept painting her, eventually making a collection about “brisca” cards in which he created one of her called “Reina de Pava.”
There are also two drawings he drew with carbon, which were some paintings about the time Doña Fela brought snow to San Juan (she convinced the owner of Eastern Airlines at the time to bring snow on a plane to Puerto Rico, genius right?!). He also designed an impressive, detailed dress with paper and calligraphy for the presentation at the museum. The artwork illustrated some of the accessories that made Doña Fela stand out like the braided bun, the hand fan, and flowers. He also included red earrings, bracelets, and nails.
The last hall of the museum exhibits the dresses made by some local designers inspired by Felisa Rincón for this event: Carlota Alfaro, Luis Fuentes, Gloria Ayala, Carlos Alberto, David Antonio, Eddie Guerrero, Edzel Giovannie, Jaer Cabán, José Raúl, Kelvin Giovannie, Lillian Ladrón, Marcos Carrazana, Miriam Budet, Osvaldo Morales, Shirley Krifter, Sonia Rivera and Sonia Santiago.
There was an abundance of black and red, lace, and, what made Mrs. Felisa de Rincón stand out, hand fans. The first dress that catches the eye is mostly made of hand fans, one dress has the bottom made of mosaics representing fans, and another dress has the top part simulating fans, specifically the shoulders with some waving on it. Another exciting thing about the mannequins was the hair! They all have grey wigs tied up in a braided bun and bangs representing the most common hair-wig look Doña Felisa used. Every single dress had a personal detail that made it stand out.
Doña Fela was loved by the people because of her dedication and care for the welfare of the citizens. She is such an inspiring woman that everyone should know about all the fantastic things she did in her life.