Most North Americans get their first exposure to the traditional Mexican embroidered, or woven huipil/blouse, from the artist Frida Kahlo with her exotic style of dressing in Mexican indigenous clothing. Frida’s collection was recently discovered in her sealed closet at the Casa Azul—her home and current museum in the Coyoacan area of Mexico City. It had been hidden away for fifty years upon request of her husband, the Mexican muralist and painter Diego Rivera. What was discovered were a wide range of colorful huipiles—mostly from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca—that Frida wore daily.
At the time when Frida and Diego were politically involved with the Communist movement in Mexico, the matriarchal society of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec held a great fascination for her. It was also a time when the identity of modern Mexico was in formation. The strong feminine persona of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec women (where the towns of Juchitan and Tehuantepec are located), and their extravagant way of dressing, was further romanticized during the 1940s by the famous book Mexico South by Miguel Covarrubias.
What we see in these elaborately embellished huipiles is the culmination of many influences that came through the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Because it was the narrowest strip of land between the Pacific Ocean, where Spain had colonies in the Phillipines, and the Gulf coast, and until the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, most of the treasures of the East passed through the Isthmus on their way to Europe. Here the local Zapotec women were exposed to the beautifully embroidered floral silk shawls of China and by the late 1890s, with the arrival of the special Singer chain-stitch machine, the women soon mastered the floral patterns they created with an almost filagree lightness. Later these machine embroiderers, on regular treadle machines, took to creating overlaid geometric patterns that are almost electrically optical in effect.
Because of the highly social nature of the Zapotec/Tehuantepec/Juchitan culture, with its frequent and important parties (velas), a style of dressing developed where huipiles and matching skirts were the most extravagant and ‘fashionista’ of all the traditional clothing of Oaxaca and possibly Mexico. The Tehuanas/Juchitecas captured the heart of Mexico and their style became the most popular of all traditional costumes.
An everyday huipil, as well as a satin or velvet (Gala) huipil, follows the basic form of a large rectangle with lining (20-22” x 40-42”) folded in half with a neck hole. A garment can then be embellished with lavish hand-embroidered flowers, the punch-needle technique, the chain stitching or with the straight sewing machine. All have been employed in various combinations for the sake of creating the most dramatic impact possible.
The form of the huipil follows precise measurements and balances of patterns but the combinations of techniques and even colors can change seasonally. Although many of the original patterns still exist, as well as the artisans that can produce them, the cost of having one of these luxury gala outfits made today is prohibitive. This hasn’t stopped the Zapotec women from the Istmo of Tehuantepec from dressing like elegant queens and demanding only the best.
Sheri Brautigam is a researcher/textile collector living and traveling in Mexico for many years. She supports textile revival projects and documents traditional textiles in communities, festivals, markets and on the street. She posts on her blog