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.]