When Indigenous Oaxaca Dress Becomes Inspiration for High Fashion

Years ago I discovered Mexican designer Carla Fernandez and her sweet little book (out of print) that taught me the difference between indigenous and Western clothing design.  Rather than form fitting construction with darts, waistbands, zippers, buttons and collars, pre-European style clothing of the Americas is made for easy fit and comfort.  The emphasis is on the weaving techniques and designs integrated into the fabric or embroidered rather than the cut.

[Left:  Odillon, owner of Arte Amusgo, a cooperative on Calle 5 de Mayo in the historic center of Oaxaca, holds an intricately handwoven huipil. The pattern is woven, not embroidered, as part of the cloth. This one sells for about 7,000 pesos.]

Indigenous clothing is flowing, soft, loose, relaxed.  Slip-it-on-0ver-the-head and you are dressed!  The dresses, or huipiles, are made as (more or less) one size fits (almost) all!  Patterns are rectangles, triangles and squares sewn together often with an intricate crochet stitch that can be as beautiful as the cloth.

Indigenous Fashion Inspires Mexican Runways  Now, an Associated Press story picked up by the New York Times tells how Mexico City contempo-Mex designers like Lydia Lavin are incorporating indigenous clothing design elements into high-end fashion.  (Click on her name to see the runway models.] Price tags are upwards of $1,000USD. (One can buy a lovely Oaxaca huipil for under $100USD.  The weaver may get 40-70%.)  Of course the look is entirely different! In Lydia Lavin’s work,  you will recognize bits and pieces of indigenous textile in the couture. [Our friend Ana Paula Fuentes, director of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, adds to the story’s commentary.]

[Left:  Women at the Guelaguetza wear indigenous dress, all handwoven, from the Alta Mixteca, in Oaxaca.]




Is this an issue of Fair Trade or Fair Game?

Ultimately, it is the consumer who must decide if the indigenous artisan is being fairly compensated for her/his work or role in clothing production.   We all make choices.  I constantly struggle with the question about what is authentic, since adaptation is part of evolution and creativity.  Yet, our choices may be clearer when offered a high-fashion knock-off that incorporates synthetic fabric, is made on a commercial rather than back-strap loom, and perhaps is made in China!

[Left: Santa Fe, NM textile designer Sheri Brautigam describes huipil designs on display at Los Baules, the shop owned by Remigio Mestas on Macedonio Alcala in the Los Danzantes restaurant patio.]

4 responses to “When Indigenous Oaxaca Dress Becomes Inspiration for High Fashion

  1. I just came back from Oaxaca and I was SUPER HAPPY with all the high fashion stores, it can really help improve the economy. Those who criticize, why? Do they still want these women to charge under $100 for weeks of work? It is RIDICULOUS.

    • Nacho, actually what is happening is that the fashion designers are purchasing handwoven and embroidered cloth from indigenous women who make them, paying a very small price for the work, then using the cloth to create contemporary fashion that sells for hundreds of U.S. dollars. So the people making the money are the designers, not the women who are weaving and embroidering the cloth.

  2. My sentiments EXACTLY Norma. I was a bit shocked and dismayed to see the beautiful Tehuantepec huipiles being but up into pieces to cover breasts and waists and leaving the rest to our imagination….nothing like the ‘REAL Deal’ and elegance of the total traje (outfit) when seen on an indigenous woman.
    So what is going on? Well, exploitation by the Mexican Fashion industry of the hand-work (embroidery in most cases) of the Mexican traditional women – without giving credit when credit is due (or even mentioning where it was from or who made it!) It sort of makes it looks rather vulgar (colorful yes) but nothing to do with the traditional garments of Mexico. I’m even sure the rich Mexican who can buy these fashions have no idea where the traditional textiles came from and that makes me sad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *