By Mildred Boyd
The Men In White
Paintings and statues from pre-Columbian times show that the female of the species had to take a back seat when it came to personal adornment. Kings and nobles bedecked themselves in gold, silver and jade in the form of pectorals, armlets, lip plugs and ear spools and wore feather mosaic cloaks and magnificently plumed head-dresses. The Aztec Emperor, Montezuma even wore golden sandals and was so heavily laden with ornaments that he could only totter a few steps without the support of two of his attendants. Even warriors went into battle loaded with jewels, wielding lavishly decorated weapons and wearing elaborate costumes, usually representing some fierce animal totem such as the eagle or the jaguar.
How times have changed! Today, even in those out of the way places where regional dress has not been replaced with the tasteless modern uniform of blue jeans, tee-shirts and Adidas, the women wear stunning outfits but their men are usually limited to simple white cotton trousers and loose tops. Perhaps that is why most men leap at the chance to wear colorful costumes. On special occasions, feast days and official ceremonies village elders and ritual dancers shine forth in a sartorial splendor that rivals, and sometimes surpasses, that of their ancestors.
Not even on his wedding day gives this handsome young Mixtec from the coastal area of Oaxaca a chance to dress up. While his bride is resplendent in traditional finery, both are barefoot and he is wearing the same homespun cotton which, if the stain on one trouser leg is any evidence, he wears to work in the fields. His simple trouser and blouse, crudely constructed of rectangular pieces of cloth straight from the loom and with a minimum of cutting and stitching, is typical of those worn by the poorer classes in rural areas.
Though little different in actual construction from the traditional whites worn by our bridegroom; the outfit of this gentleman striding confidently, hands in pockets and seemingly deep in thought, along the streets of Cuetzalan, Pueblo has several distinctive features. It is differentiated by a slightly longer top with full sleeves gathered at the wrist and trousers that are rolled up and tied just below the knee. The cooler climate of the central highlands often dictates the addition of a sleeveless black overgarment that resembles a long vest. A broad brimmed straw hat and thong sandals complete the ensemble.
Not all the everyday outfits are so unadorned. In some areas the basic whites are perked up with colorful accessories; brightly colored scarves or sashes and embroidered shoulder bags. Few, however, go to such lengths as the Huichol of Northern Jalisco in sprucing up their outfits. Even their every day dress is lavishly embroidered with religious motifs in brilliant primary colors and each man carries an equally elaborate hand woven bolsa. Ceremonial dress is much the same, only more so, and religious leaders wear fancy hats and beaded jewelry as well as the fetish bags containing the sacred peyote used in their rituals.
Another small group of men who still wear their traditional dress, the Tacuate Indians of the Mixtec area are even more distinctive in their short pants and long sleeved tops. The trousers have multiple bands of embroidery and are so full that they resemble skirts. The long, intricately draped and pouffed overblouses that make them look like they are wearing rompers are also lavishly embroidered on yoke and sleeves in a rainbow of brilliant colors. Both wear simple foot gear and the gentleman on the left, obviously a dignitary of some consequence, proudly exhibits his ribbon decked staff of office.
These young men from Huistan in Chiapas have also relieved the boring austerity of pure white with embroidered shirts, but the distinctive feature of their costume is the sash, if so dramatic an appurtenance can be called so mundane a name. What appears to be a five or six yard length of brilliant red material is twisted, looped several times about the hips like an enormous doughnut and tied so that the ends flare gracefully almost to the ground on either side. Another length of dark gray can be slung over the shoulder like a serape and serve as a wrap in inclement weather. Alas for tradition! One of our subjects is wearing running shoes!
Many small pueblos still elect elders that have nothing to do with PRI or PAN or any other political party. Such men conduct village business, pass judgement in purely local disputes and preside over markets and festivals dressed in the colorful costumes of their office. These solemn gentlemen from Chenalha are magnificent in red, black and white outfits consisting of long, fringed, tricolor cloaks, white shirts and tight pants with multi colored ribbons and bells at the knee. Triple tiered, turban-like head gear, elaborately woven sashes, colorful neck wear and intricately laced, red thonged sandals serve as stylish accessories. Long staffs of office with ribbon tassels would mark them as men of consequence anywhere in the world.
This solemn gentleman wears the standard costume of his region while presiding over a private religious rite. His outfit consists of short pants, an undershirt with simple embroidery at the neck and a long overblouse, all in the ubiquitous white. As an elder of his tribe, however, he is not always limited to such colorless attire. Feast days and official occasions give him the opportunity to step forth in the regal splendor that is described in the next section.
Lords of the Clouds
The elected officials of the Tzotzil Maya in Chíapas, Los Señores de las Nubes, preside over the religious and civil life of a proud people. Their official uniform is fairly plain; a square necked, black, poncho like garment worn over a white, long-sleeved shirt and short trousers. It is the addition of long, brilliant red and white scarves wound several times around their necks and the high crowned hats bedizened with dozens of fluttering ribbons and tasselled chin cords in rainbow hues that make their outfits spectacular. The silver bracelets sported by several of these important personages may be optional but rather battered huaraches as footgear are obviously mandatory. Gold headed staffs, also gaudily beribboned, complete an ensemble that might excite even a peacock’s envy.