A Head to Toe Look at Mexican Traditional Clothing
© Tara A. Spears
Mexican culture infuses its fashions with ancient beliefs and local customs. Even using modern construction techniques for today’s traditional garments, Mexicans use centuries old motifs to create this country’s signature clothes. Mexican clothing is a wonderful blend of indigenous American and European styles. These distinctive fashions are vivid, comfortable, and beautifully crafted. A brief overview of Mexican garments will heighten your appreciation for these unique clothes.
Mexican garments can be separated into three major categories: traditional costumes, modern clothes, and celebration dresses. Today, most Mexicans have been influenced by modern North American culture and prefer contemporary clothing. But many Mexicans, especially older ones, have maintained the use of traditional Mexican clothes and costumes for important occasions. You might have noticed that there are specialty dress shops in every village and mall. That’s because it is the custom for women to wear elaborate formal styles (lace, sequins, beads) to baptisms, birthdays, anniversary, and holiday fiestas. Throughout the country the key items of women’s clothing are: quechquémitl (a wrap); huipil (shift dress); rebozo (shawl); sombrero (hat); and regional dresses.
Where the garment originates influences which type of fabric is used, with the most common fabric being cotton or wool. Cotton, agave, and bark were specifically used by the pre-Hispanic civilizations. Later on, the Spanish introduced silk and wool. Native Mexicans usually prefer earthy colors such as dark red, brown, natural off-white. However, they also like vivid green or bright yellow in their clothes. In the past, Mexicans dyed clothes with natural components present in local plants, but with the discovery of aniline dyes in Europe, Mexicans have adopted their dyeing techniques to include the commercial fabric dyes.
Traditional Folkloric Costumes:
Each of Mexico’s 31 states has a signature clothing style that is impacted by regional and climatic conditions. Customs and traditions also are exclusive to each state. For example: The Escaramuza dress from Jalisco (wide skirt with stripes and high-collared blouse, lead photo with yellow dress); The traditional dress of Chiapas (wide-necked blouses and wide black skirts with vividly embroidered flowers and stripes, above photo); Michoacán’s dress is a patterned skirt, blouse with embroidery at neck and at bottom with belt, apron, and ribozo). Blouse patterns differ slightly by region: the Jalapa blouses are different than puebla blouses, etc.
Outfits like the huipil and serape are common. The huipil (pronounced “wee-peel”) is a sleeveless, tunic-like garment. As with many other cultures that use garments to identify their specific areas of origin, the distinctive design on a huipil can distinguish the community that the wearer belongs to. The designs may also convey the wearer’s marital status or personal beliefs. Embroidery and patterns change from region to region. Wool is used for huipils in the cooler, hilly regions, whereas capes like Capisayos (made from palm leaves) or those made from organic cotton are used in the plains.
Embroidery is a characteristic of most traditional Mexican garments. You will find that Yucatan- style of embroidery has different designs than that of Chiapas. Clothing is especially heavily embroidered for celebrations. There are different costumes for the traditional dances like Danza de los Arcos (white costumes with colorful sashes across the chest), Matlachines (brightly colored skirts, long tunics, and feathered headdresses), etc. Prominent Aztec influence is seen in the use of sun symbols, mythological depictions in embroidery, and beaded jewelry.
Quechquémitl is another traditional Mexican woman’s clothing item. It looks like a stylish poncho and is worn most commonly as part of a dressy ensemble for a party or other special occasion. The quechquémitl consists of two rectangular pieces of cloth woven to resemble a small poncho. They’re made with everything from wool to cotton, and may be embroidered with animals, floral prints and graphic designs. It is made from hand-woven cloth and is usually beautifully embroidered with graphic designs or floral prints as the following three photos illustrate.
Rebozo is a type of shawl or scarf, typically made from wool, cotton, or silk. It is a popular item of a woman’s attire used in indigenous and non-indigenous communities. It is a multi-functional garment, also used to carry market goods, fruits, and even babies. Different colors of stripes are woven into the Robozo to represent the different communities in Mexico.
Mexican skirts are identified by different names such as chincuete (pleated skirt), or enagua (skirt with a waistband), depending on the area of origin. Some women prefer to wear ankle-length skirts, while others favor knee-length ones. The skirts are most commonly made from wool and cotton. Today, with a wider variety of fabrics are available so polyester, silk, and lace are also used to make skirts.
Blouses are an integral part of the wardrobe of a Mexican woman. Some Mexican women prefer to wear a blouse rather than a huipil. Blouses are heavily embroidered using beautiful lace, beads, and colorful patterns. They are available in a wide variety of styles, in terms of length, width, and design.
Traditional Attire for Men
In tropical regions of Mexico, many men prefer a light, comfortable button-up shirt called the Guayabera. It is the perfect attire for casual or formal occasions. These shirts are available in a variety of colors and styles and are decorated with beautiful embroidery. However, the most traditional pieces of clothing for men in Mexico are the following:
Serape is a traditional addition to a man’s wardrobe. It is a vibrantly colored blanket-like shawl that has fringe. The length varies but usually it is knee length. The serape represents a combination of Mayan elements with the Mexican poncho that has a whole for the head. Serapes made in the Mexican state of Coahuila have bright colors whereas serapes made in the mountainous regions tend to be the natural colors of the sheep such as tan, brown, grey.
Charro Suit is a traditional piece of Mexican clothing that is generally worn on the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated to remember the death of loved ones. This outfit consists of slacks, shirt, and vest that is highly embellished with decorative stitching and even silver! The women’s version consists of an A shaped slim skirt, blouse, and vest. A Charro suit is often paired with a sombrero.
The original sombrero is a wide brimmed hat that made from straw to protect from Mexico’s intense sun. Even today, the sombrero is worn by men all over Mexico. The cloth version-preferred by horsemen and Charros- has a distinctive shape and is quite heavy. This accessory is one of the most significant denotations of the culture and customs of Mexico.
Traditional Mexican Accessories
Most Mexicans like to use elaborate accessories with garments. The choice of accessories is distinct to every region. Women like to wear ribbons as hair decoration or as a necklace. Most women complete the outfit with woven bracelets and beaded rings. In some regions, Mexicans like to use unusual material like fish-bones or seashells as accessories. These kinds of ornaments are believed to act as amulets or medallions to ward off evil. In the southern states (near Central America) the Native Indios can be seen wearing tehuana headdress and tzutes (cloth).
Other traditional accessories include caites (leather sandals) and moral, a woven bag with shoulder strap. Huaraches are traditional Mexican sandals. Their origins are unknown, but there are clear design links between some modern huaraches such as Mayan Caites sandals and Pre-Hispanic footwear seen on ancient codices. All woven Huaraches are all made using a single strip of leather or woven textile that is finished off through holes in the sole.
Mexican traditional clothing has become popular throughout the world due to its simplistic beauty. Its symbols, art and history enrich it and make it even more interesting. Traditional Mexican fashions serve as more than adornment, they are a visible history lesson. The next time that you see the ubiquitous hand-made jewelry or seemingly simple cotton clothes, don’t think junk, think what a tribute to Mexican culture.