Description

The huipil is a blouse-like garment worn by women in Mesoamerica since at least 2,000 years ago [1]. The name huipil derives from the Nahuatl word “huipilli,” used by the Aztecs to denote this garment. However, the huipil can receive different names, according to the Native languages spoken by the cultures that wear it. For example, in Maya Tzotzil, the huipil is known as k’u’il or chilil [2].

Before the Spanish Invasion of Mesoamerica, the huipil was assembled from squares or rectangles of cloth as they came from the backstrap looms in which they were created [3]. Between one and three lengths of fabric were sewn together, leaving openings for the arms and head to go through. Traditionally, the geometric, symbolic patterns featured in huipiles were created as the lengths of fabric were woven. The motifs, colors, and weaving techniques were representative of the different Aztec and Maya cultures that created and wore the garment, as well as of the status of the weaver and wearer of the huipil.

Indigenous women in Mexico and Guatemala still weave huipiles on backstrap looms today. However, huipiles can also be manufactured with store-bought cloth and using sewing machines [4]. In the cases in which bought cloth is used, huipiles can be decorated with embroideries, lace, braid, and ribbon trimmings. Contemporary designs not only include traditional geometric motifs, but also floral and figurative motifs that were adopted after the Spanish invasion [5]. Although the huipil has often been described as a “sleeveless tunic” [6], some contemporary versions do have sleeves. Huipiles can be long and hang freely, even reaching the ankles, but in some cases they are short and are often worn with a skirt, at times tucked inside, depending on the length of the design.

Nowadays, the huipil represents cultural resistance among the cultures that weave it and wear it [7]. In many Indigenous cultures, the design of the huipil still has associations with age, marital status, and ethnicity. More importantly, huipiles still have a highly important value and symbolism, particularly those created for special ceremonies.

Details

Appropriation and Influence

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Isabel Marant Étoile Viola embroidered cotton-muslin dress (Spring/Summer 2015)

This dress bears a striking resemblance to the huipil that is traditionally worn by women from the Indigenous Mixe community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec in Oaxaca, Mexico [8]. The red and black embroideries of the huipil are symbols of their cultural identity and are linked to their cosmological views. As of December 14th, 2020, the designer’s Wikipedia site in French stated that “according to both Mexican and European laws, the ‘Blouse of Tlahuitoltepec’ is in the public domain: it is not protected by copyright … so anyone can freely draw inspiration from it” (author’s translation) [9]. More than five years later, in 2020, Isabel Marant finally apologized for its repeated appropriation of Indigenous Mexican designs, after Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, Alexandra Frausto Guerrero, called out the brand for appropriating Purépecha designs in its Fall/Winter 2021 collection [10]. As Frausto Guerrero rightly pointed out in her letter to Isabel Marant, the commoditization of traditional cultural expressions and Indigenous heritage should go well beyond copyright law, and should rely on ethical principles and close relationships with racialized communities [11].

Photo: Net-A-Porter.

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Pineda Covalin “Huipil Istmo”

Mexican brand Pineda Covalin prides itself on promoting the ancestral Indigenous heritage of Mexican and Latin American culture around the world. However, it has been accused repeatedly of cultural appropriation by Indigenous artisans from Mexico, as have many other brands, such as Isabel Marant (above) to the Spanish brand Intropia, Hugo Boss, Mara Hoffman, and Hermès. This “huipil” is embroidered with the floral pattern representative of Juchitán, typically featured in the outfits worn by Tehuanas (see below). The brand states that this design contributes to World Vision México programmes, which train women from San Mateo del Mar and Vicente Camalote, in Oaxaca [12], although the participation of Indigenous artisan communities in the design is unclear.

Photo: Pineda Covalin.

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Frida Kahlo wears a Tehuana dress in a photograph by Nickolas Muray

Frida Kahlo was one of the most prominent figures to adopt the Tehuana dress as an expression of Indigenous pride and is still admired for doing so. The traje de tehuana (or Tehuana dress) is traditionally worn by the Zapotec women on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which encompasses the States of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas, in Southern Mexico. It consists of a short huipil with vestigial sleeves and a long, flared skirt with lace flounce at the hem, often embroidered with matching floral or geometric patterns. Tehuana dress has been promoted as the traditional Mexican dress since the 1920s, when post-revolutionary Mexican leaders began rejecting European values and promoting an ethnic diversity that highlighted the country’s Indigenous heritage. Since then, the Tehuana has come to represent a beautiful Indigenous woman who is not associated with a particular region—a violent conflation that might actually erase the cultural diversity of the different ethnic groups that still live in Mexico. Nowadays, the Tehuana dress is also produced in mass for the tourist market, which has encouraged its production far from Tehuantepec and has caused the abandonment of traditional manufacturing techniques [13].

Photo: Brooklyn Museum, © Nickolas Muray Archive.

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Lila Downs wearing a huipil at the 75th Academy Awards ceremony in 2003

Mexican-American artist Lila Downs has consistently used Oaxacan Indigenous textiles in the construction of her musical persona, which highlights her hybrid identity, inherited from her Mixtec mother and Irish-American father. Lila Down’s huipiles are often “cut and reshaped into trimmed tight bodices that resemble a halter top laced in the back” and worn with ethnic jewelry and other elements from Mexican mestizo culture and contemporary American popular culture. Lila Down’s use of the huipil thus offers “a significantly different model of transculturation from which we can interpret Latinidad as a truly fluid concept that reflects the history of immigration, exile and displacement in Latina/o communities” [14].

Photo: Getty Images.

Endnotes

[1] Chloë Sayer, Costumes of Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).

[2] Walter F. Morris Jr., “Simbolismo de un huipil ceremonial,” Artes de México 19 (1998): 66.

[3] Sayer, Costumes of Mexico.

[4] Patricia Arias, “El viaje de los huipiles. De Juchitán a los Altos de Jalisco,” Nueva Antropología 29, no. 85 (2016): 11–30.

[5] Sofía Agostini, “Raíces de la moda: La historia del huipil mexicano,” Vogue, August 19, 2020. 

[6] Chloë Sayer, “Traditional Mexican dress,” V&A, accessed December 14, 2020.

[7] Curator Marta Turok quoted in Agostini, “Raíces de la moda.”

[8] Naomi Larsson, “Inspiration or plagiarism? Mexicans seek reparations for French designer’s look-alike blouse,” The Guardian, June 17, 2015. 

[9] “Isabel Marant,” Wikipedia, accessed December 14, 2020. 

[10] Tara Donaldson, “Isabel Marant Apologizes to Mexico for Its Indigenous-Inspired Designs,” WWD, November 17, 2020. 

[11] Alexandra Frausto Guerrero on Twitter (November 4, 2020), accessed December 14, 2020. 

[12] “Huipil Istmo,” Pineda Covalin, accessed 14 December 2020.

[13] Arias, “El viaje de los huipiles.”

[14] Gema Guevara, “Of fabric and fabrication: Lila Downs’ refashioning of transnational music,” Latino Studies 12, no. 4 (2014): 550–565.

References

Guevara, Gema. “Of fabric and fabrication: Lila Downs’ refashioning of transnational music.” Latino Studies 12, no. 4 (2014): 550–565.

Larsson, Naomi. “Inspiration or plagiarism? Mexicans seek reparations for French designer’s look-alike blouse.” The Guardian, June 17, 2015.

Sayer, Chloë. Costumes of Mexico. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Sayer, Chloë. “Traditional Mexican dress.” V&A. Accessed December 14, 2020.

Learn More

Article: “Clothing: Skirt, Huipil” in Mesolore discusses the use of the huipil before the Spanish invasion, according to early-colonial New Spanish [present-day Mexico] sources.

Article: “Traditional Mexican dress” offers a closer look at Indigenous clothing from the V&A’s collection and some distinctive examples worn by Frida Kahlo.

Documentary: “Handmade in Mexico–Huipil BBC Londres.” Directed by Alessandra Bonomolo. Produced by Greamme Hard.

Refer to The Library for even more resources on the huipil.