Huipil ['wipil] (from the Nahuatl word huīpīlli [wiː'piːlːi]) is the most common traditional garment worn by indigenous women from Mexico and other parts of Central America. These loose-fitting cap-sleeve tunics are generally made from two or three rectangular pieces of fabric joined together with stitching, ribbons, or fabric strips, with an opening for the head and arms.
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Some huipiles have intricate and meaningful designs. Huipiles for fiestas (or velas as they are known on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) are the most elaborate and are reserved for weddings, burials, and women with greater economic resources. The style of huipiles often indicates the class and ethnicity of the wearer. Historically, communities had their own methods of creating fabrics and decorations, so huipiles can also convey the wearer’s locality.
Traditional huipiles are often made with fabric woven on a backstrap loom and are heavily decorated with embroidery, ribbons, lace, and woven designs. Although huipiles may look alike, they exhibit great variety from the creator’s ability and the arrangement of specific groups of motifs and color.
The huipil is typically lined with cotton for easier wear in this tropical climate. In the early twentieth century, some of the fabrics for huipiles were produced in Manchester, England for export to the Isthmus. With the advent of the sewing machine, machine-made, chain-stitched patterns became popular alongside hand embroidery work.
The style and significance of huipiles have evolved over time, as their creators adapted traditional indigenous designs to reflect emerging modern fashion. Fashion trends were influenced by many factors, including capitalism, increased consumption, and the changing meanings of national symbols.
The changing designs of the huipil reflect a history of cultural negotiations between indigenous traditions and Western modernity. During the Victorian era, transparent huipiles and form-fitting skirts were replaced by muslin huipiles and wider skirts with petticoats to reflect more modest Victorian fashions.
Huipiles and their accompanying skirts reflected distinct social classes. A plain huipil, wrap around skirt with sash, and ribboned braids were typically worn by women of limited economic resources. More intricate elements, including ruffles, lace collars, gold fringes, and silk scarves reflected a higher social status. Many public fiestas granted entrance only to women attired in the highest gala clothing.
All the huipiles in this exhibition come from the cities of Tehuantepec and Juchitán in the districts of the same names on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southeastern Mexican state of Oaxaca. They all would be worn with special kind of skirt (never with jeans by the women of the region). Mexican women who are not from the region or a younger generation might now sport them with slacks or jeans. The huipiles in this exhibition are short huipiles worn by the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southeastern Mexico.
Chassen-López, Francie. A Tehuana and Her Traje: Fashion, Modernity and Ethnicity in Porfirian Mexico. An invited paper presented at the Latin American Labor History Conference, Duke University, October 2-3, 2009, Durham, N.C. [unpublished]
Covarrubias, Miguel. Mexico South, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. New York: Knopf, 1946.
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