By Mildred Boyd
Not too long ago the knowledgeable traveler needed only one glimpse of a local lady’s distinctive clothing to tell him exactly where he was. Even in areas where a particular style was widely worn there was always something—the width of a stripe, the color of a tassel—to pinpoint the home village of the wearer. And, even though all women in a village wore similar costumes, each incorporated some small detail of design or color to make it individually hers.
Traditionally, there were only two types of tops. The huipile, worn mostly in the southern states and made from two strips of material sewn to leave only arm and neck openings, could be of any length. The quexquemetl, more common in the north and roughly square, had only a neck hole and was worn like a poncho with the corner points hanging front and back. Skirts were either simple lengths of cloth wrapped like a sarong or yards wide with a single seam. Either style could be pleated or draped in endless variations.
Although many of today’s costumes echo these pre-Columbian styles, a few date from colonial times or even later. Hand woven textiles are often replaced by machine made goods in patterns formerly unknown. Such accessories as decorative aprons and the wonderfully versatile rebozos are strictly post-conquest.
Unfortunately, except on very special occasions the wearing of regional costumes is being abandoned. Aesthetically, while admittedly more practical and undoubtedly more comfortable, the jeans and t-shirts that are replacing them leave a great deal to be desired.
A tight bodice with elbow length puffed sleeves tops a long, swirling skirt inset with tiers of bright satin ribbon to make Jalisco’s entry one of the most charming and colorful of all. A lovely senorita wearing this, especially when accompanied by a caballero in the elegant, and equally Jaliscan, charro costume, is the very essence of colonial Mexico.
The Totonac ladies of tropical Veracruz keep their cool in pristine white organdy and lace. Though the materials are modern, the style is more than attractive enough to make up for any lack of authenticity. Each fluffy skirt is topped with a quexquemetl featuring a deep Ounce of sheer lace which is often folded into a triangle and draped over the shoulders like a shawl.
The distinctive feature here is the more modern blouse, usually of white cotton, with a low, round neckline set off by a deep ruffle which is embroidered with floral motifs in brilliant colors. Skirts in matching colors have a white flounce at the hemline. On feast days the women often carry shallow baskets of fruit and flowers.
The unusual high-buttoned, long-sleeved blouses of these desert dwellers boast short peplums and bright colors, sometimes with contrasting stripes, but have little other decoration. The Seri woman seems to devote most of her considerable artistic talent to her face, which she paints with stripes and dots of bright pigment in the intricate pattern that is uniquely her own.
The Huicholes, on the other hand, decorate everything in sight and men often outshine women in extravagant ornamentation. Not that the heavy, hand woven quexquemetls with their bands of brilliant color are by any means plain. Worn over full white skirts and set off by numerous strands of beads, they make a pleasant contrast to the gaudier males.
Zapotec huipiles are usually woven in narrow strips with bands of white alternating with bands of colored designs. Three strips are sewn together with a square neck opening in the center and the seams are covered with vertical bands of embroidery or ribbon appliqués. Dark skirts usually complete the striking outfit but colored ones appear on festive occasions.
Even the everyday costumes, still widely worn, of Maya mestizas are works of art; long, white, machine embroidered square necked huipiles with colorful bands of flowers encircling neck, sleeves and hemline. (Given the primitive conditions in which most of them still live, one can only wonder how on earth they manage to keep them clean!) Feast days find them in similar, but finer woven, lavishly hand embroidered versions just short enough to show to advantage the lace trimmed flounces on their skirts.
Tarascan ladies once wore voluminous skirts of red or black homespun wool hand pleated and held in place by several long, narrow belts which are hand woven in intricate designs. The type of pleating and the number, design and method of tying the belts were distinctive to a given area. Embroidered tops and matching rebozos completed the outfit. Modern versions may be of printed cotton or lustrous satin with the addition of lavishly embroidered aprons.
San Luis Potosi
The small quexquemetl worn by the Huasteca features a v-neck and overall embroidery, usually in a single color, against a white background. It is worn over a simple blouse in a matching color. Though the traditional wrap-around skirt is still worn, it is no longer woven by hand but made of commercially produced black poplin.
The simple shawl takes on the stunning elegance of a work of art in the talented hands of Otomi women. Each outfit must represent countless hours of intensive labor but the result is certainly spectacular.
Usually of wool, embroidered with a ríot of flowers or mythical animals and birds, this dramatic garment drapes from the top of the head to sweep the floor with a border of knotted fringe. It is worn over an equally ornate matching skirt and quexquemetl.
Tradition says the incredibly elaborate head-dresses the Tehuanas wear on special occasions were copied from a European style christening dress cast ashore after a shipwreck. Made from starched and pleated white lace, these frothy concoctions are arranged on the top of the head to frame the face of the wearer and fall in graceful folds down the back.
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