Description

The sarape (or zarape) is an overgarment worn traditionally by men in rural areas throughout Mexico. It is often made of two matching rectangular panels, woven independently in two loom widths with a cotton warp and a wool weft. [1] Sometimes worn as a mantle around the shoulders, the sarape can also have an opening in the center for the head to go through.

Traditionally, the panels were woven in a backstrap loom and the threads were created using a malacatl, a sort of winch used by Mesoamerican textile artists to thread fibers. Nowadays, the sarape can also be woven with mass-produced threads. Sarapes of different sizes and styles have also received the names of gabán, jorongo, frazada, tapete, and tilma (an abbreviation of tilmatli). [2]

The sarape is thought to be the colonial result of the hybridization of the Spanish manta, or mantle, and the tilmatli, a square cotton blanket worn by Mexican men to cover their upper bodies. Its production among Nahuatl artisans in New Spain (present-day Mexico) was encouraged by the establishment of the tributo (a form of tax) imposed by the Spanish crown and the later establishment of obrajes (textile workshops) in the Spanish colonies. [3]

The sarape reached its peak between the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th. The most exquisite sarapes from this period were tapestry-woven on treadle-looms and often featured a vertical mosaic field of zigzag stripes with a concentric serrated diamond at the center. Sometimes the central serrated diamond was replaced by a baroque or scalloped medallion. These designs are created as the cloth is woven in the loom. [4]

Over the years, the sarape has become a symbol of mexicanismo, or Mexican nationalism. [5] During the wars of Independence, the sarape was considered a symbol of resistance and the fight against the oppression of the Spanish Crown. It has also become part of the traditional dress of the charro, perhaps the most symbolic horseman figure from Mexico. [6] The image of the sarape became especially popular in the nineteenth century, thanks to the lithographs published by traveling artists who visited the country.

The colors and designs of the sarape represent the different places and groups of artisans that create it. The finest sarapes are thought to come from the northern state of Coahuila, mainly from the city of Saltillo. Other famously fine sarapes are made in Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosí, Hidalgo, Texcoco, Querétaro, and San Miguel de Allende.

Details

Appropriation and Influence

Model wearing a cape with stripes and undulating motifs in different shades of brown and caramel-colored, knee-length boots

Étoile Isabel Marant Fall/Winter 2020–2021 cape

This cape bears a striking resemblance to some of the designs featured in sarapes and other textile products created by Purépecha artisans in Michoacán, as well as other artisanal communities in San Miguel Chiconcuac y Gualupita (State of Mexico), San Bernardino Contla (Tlaxcala), and San Luis Potosí and Teotitlán del Valle (Oaxaca). Mexico’s Secretary of Culture, Alexandra Frausto Guerrero, called out Isabel Marant for appropriating Purépecha designs in its Fall/Winter 2021 collection. [7] Frausto Guerrero pointed out in her letter to the brand that 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. [8] In 2020, Isabel Marant finally apologized for its repeated appropriation of Indigenous Mexican designs.

Image: Josh Olins for Étoile Isabel Marant via Vogue Runway.

model wearing a dress with horizontal, multi-coloured stripes

Carolina Herrera Resort 2020 dress

The patterns in several dresses from this collection bear a striking resemblance to the striped “rainbow” designs often featured in traditional sarapes de Saltillo. The collection, designed by creative director Wes Gordon, was praised for remaining “absolutely true to the brand’s roots” and “playing up Herrera’s Venezuelan side”. [9] However, the conflation of Mexican and Venezuelan cultures into the same “tropical”-looking aesthetic, is yet another example of the colonial violence exerted towards varied Latin American cultures from the gaze of a fashion industry centered in Europe and North America. When called out by Mexican Secretary of Culture Alexandra Frausto Guerrero, the brand replied that “the collection had been conceived as a ‘tribute to the richness of Mexican culture’ and its craft techniques.” [10]

Image: Carolina Herrera via Vogue Runway.

woman covering her body by holding a striped sarape in front of it, with a desert and mountains in the background

Mexican actress Eiza González poses with a sarape in the desert

Eiza González made the headlines for revealing her sensual body under a sarape in a photo taken in the desert. Although the inclusion of the sarape in the photo can be read as a nod to the artist’s cultural heritage, little is mentioned about the history of this garment—not only traditionally worn by men but also the result of the violence of colonization. Comments on Instagram refer to it as a “towel” and the news sites highlight the sensuality of the actress’s nude body.

Image: Eiza Gonzalez’s Instagram.

man holding a sarape with semi-abstract geometric designs

Commission of sarapes de Saltillo from artisans by Fomento Cultural Banamex in 2010

Master Efrén Nava from Gualupita, Yancuitlalpan, Mexico, shows his creation of a colonial-style sarape with natural-dyed cotton and wool fibers and gold and silver thread. This sarape is one of several that were created under commission by Fomento Cultural Banamex, which intends to highlight the cultural heritage of textile weaving in the country and help preserve its legacy among contemporary and future generations. [11]

Image: Gualupita on Facebook.

Endnotes

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

[2] Ramón Mena, “El zarape”, Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía 20, no. 3 (1925): 373–398.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Paula Marie Juelke, Marta Turok, and Mark Winter, Sarape de Saltillo (Mexico City: Museo Franz Mayer & Artes de México, 2008).

[5] Marilyn Adriana Ortiz Gasca, “Bajo el manto de un sarape: colores y conciliaciones internacionales a través de un objeto de arte popular,” Intervención 5, no. 9 (2014).

[6] Juelke, Turok, and Winter, Sarape de Saltillo.

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

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

[9] Nicole Phelps, “Carolina Herrera. Resort 2020,” Vogue, June 6, 2019.

[10] Sam Jones, “Mexico accuses designer Carolina Herrera of cultural appropriation,” The Guardian, June 13, 2019.

[11] “El rescate del sarape de Saltillo – Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano, 20 años,” Fomento Cultural Banamex, posted May 6, 2020, YouTube video, 18:46.

References

Juelke, Paula Marie, Marta Turok, and Mark Winter. Sarape de Saltillo. Mexico City: Museo Franz Mayer & Artes de México, 2008.

Mena, Ramón. “El zarape”, Anales del Museo Nacional de Arqueología, Historia y Etnografía 20, no. 3 (1925): 373–398.

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

Learn More
  1. Article: “Traditional Mexican dress” offers a closer look at Mexican clothing from the V&A’s collection.
  2. Lecture: “El Sarape de Saltillo en la historia. A cargo de Marta Turok” offers an overview of the history of the sarape de Saltillo in Spanish, led by one of the foremost authorities on the topic.
  3. Book: Sarape de Saltillo offers a comprehensive history of the garment.
  4. Refer to The Library for even more resources on the sarape.