To my surprise, she lives in a small house in El Vedado, Havana, with blue French windows. When I arrived I saw her at the end of the hall. Rocking in the terrace she did not hear the door bell because she was watching a Spanish film. I called her by her name: “María Elena!” I tried it with her last name: “Molinet!” But still she did not lose concentration in the film they were showing that afternoon on TV. After a few minutes she realized that “someone was patiently leaning on the living door frame”.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I was enjoying a very interesting film. Don’t ask me the name because it had already started when I sat down”, she said while coming to open the door, finding support in the curved cane that belonged to her father, who fought in our independence war.
MarÍa Elena Molinet, one of the most important Cuban stage wardrobe designers of all times, still has the looks and professional talent of the elegant, wise ladies of past centuries. Despite her almost 93 years of age (Holguín, September 30, 1919), she still conserves the good taste and passion that have always characterized her.
“But do sit down! Let me know, tell me what you need. Don’t worry about the cat. He’s very naughty, very playful”, insists the National Prize of Design and Theater, like a teacher who is eager to transmit all her knowledge.
“Do you want some coffee?” she asks me. “No, thank you, I don’t drink coffee”, I answer, and she adds, frowning: “My goodness! Coffee is so very Cuban!”
Do you like cats, María Elena?
All of them. I like all animals. I love them. That cat is called Niván. My niece gave him that name. But ask me. I will tell you everything I remember and think may be necessary.
When did you become aware of your interest in wardrobe design?
When I was scarcely 9 or 10 years old. By that time I was already interested in the anatomy of the human body. I painted little naked boys and girls. My mother punished me, but that was what I liked.
How do you recall your childhood?
If you think they told me children’s fables and that is why I liked to design clothes, you’re wrong (laughs). At home, instead of telling me fairytales they told me stories about the independence war.
Did you ever design your own wardrobe to wear when you were a teenager?
Yes, of course. But at first they didn’t let me use it. Then, when I began to study painting and engraving at San Alejandro Academy, my mother gradually began to allow me to wear the clothes I designed for myself.
You started working in the theater in 1953…
That was when I graduated from San Alejandro. When I was still in school I was already interested in designing stage wardrobe. To be honest, I was never interested in painting, but in design. Or better, in studying the human image through his/her clothes. That is why I began to work with some great dramatists of the Cuban stage like Andrés Castro, Roberto Blanco and Raquel Revuelta in Teatro Estudio, with plays like Las tres hermanas (The Three Sisters).
Prior to 1959 you had to travel to Venezuela having already developed an art career in Cuba. How did this period influence your professional qualification?
Well, you can imagine. I keep very good memories from there. I had worked in the small theaters in Cuba, and also studied and traveled quite a lot. I was already a professional. But in Venezuela I discovered a world that was unknown to me. Among many others, I worked hard with several choreographers who were doing research on indigenous dances from that territory and later granted them a modern expression without depriving them of their characteristic elements.
When you returned to Havana in the decade of 1960 you began to work at Teatro Nacional (the National Theater) as wardrobe designer. In other interviews you have stated that you have a great longing for that period. Why?
Those were very prolific years for Cuban culture. It was a foundational period. I had the opportunity to be a founder of the Conjunto Folklórico Nacional (National Folkloric Ensemble), of the majority of the theater groups, the art schools, the Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Art and Culture (ICAIC by its Spanish acronym)… The sixties were precious years for me, both personally and professionally.
Which of the films you worked for do you recall most fondly?
Well, there were many. And all the work I did, I did with love. I remember Tulipa and La Primera Carga al machete, both by Manuel Octavio Gómez, the first director with whom I made movies; Lucía, by Humberto Solás, among many others. My last participation in a film was in Baraguá, by José Massip. They all demanded study and rigorous research in books and the press of those days to conceive the wardrobe, according to the historical period handled in each one of them.
By the way, which are the traditional Cuban garments?
None. Cuba has no traditional garments. The only clothes that could have been totally traditional were the primitive clothing articles used by the indigenous communities. And those disappeared without leaving any trace. When the Spaniards arrived they dressed the Indians and imposed their clothes upon them, because the Catholic religion did not allow people to remain naked. That is why we can state that there are no purely traditionally Cuban garments. The only garments that became traditionally popular with the passing of time because they were transformed by the less well-off classes are the guayabera, the bata (gown) and the rumba dancer suit (used initially by the lower classes and cocky or showy black men). But from those three, only the last two remained, to be worn solely on the stage. Therefore, the guayabera is the only clothing article considered traditionally popular.
María Elena, why don’t you like to use the term “Cuban fashion”?
Because Fashion (with capital F) is part of the market. Rose Bertin, French fashion designer for Queen Marie Antoinette, was the first one to reach worldwide celebrity when she created her own fashion house to sell her products. Since then, Fashion is an imposition. Fashion, with a small letter – it is not I who says so, it’s the dictionaries – is the one that emerges from the popular classes. It represents and results from modes and customs. The Fashion is an economic event of great impact.
I see that in spite of your age you wear thread bracelets, which are generally worn by young persons nowadays…
Yes, I’ve always liked them. They are accessories with decorative values.
In that case, do you believe in design as an art that may create paradigms? Why?
Yes, because of its intrinsic values.