Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in Oaxaca

In planning for a visit to India in November 2016 and on the recommendation of a friend, I ordered a copy of Emma Tarlo’s book, Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in India. What strikes me are the similarities between Mexico and India and the politics of cloth as a statement of belonging, assimilation and independence.

Emma Tarlo is a British cultural anthropologist and the book is based on research for her doctoral degree. Identity is tied to the quality of cloth, where it’s made, how it’s made and by whom, style (is it westernized or indigenous) and how a person feels about him/herself in their chosen attire.

Clothes are symbols for who we are, where we come from and who we aspire to be. They are also symbols for keeping people in their place by banning attire or requiring that people maintain a dress code based on their ethnic identity.

Oaxaca's khadi cloth, with native coyuchi and handspun, naturally dyed cotton

Oaxaca’s khadi cloth, with native coyuchi and handspun, naturally dyed cotton

Indigenous dress can convey a strong sense of pride or shame. Handmade cloth is more costly than machine woven textiles and often unaffordable to most.Handmade can be code for poverty, class and rough quality. In Chiapas, metallic, synthetic thread is all the rage by Chamula women. It is difficult to find natural dyes there now.

The first section of the book addresses the politics of cloth, India’s M.K. Ghandi social movement to eradicate manufactured and imported cloth and reinstate khadi cotton as part of a national independence movement.

It was curious to me to read this because Khadi is also the name of a Oaxaca cooperative that hand-spins and hand weaves native cotton using the type of spinning wheel used in India. The textile is soft,  airy, comfortable and easy to wear in Oaxaca’s climate. Yet, I had no idea until reading Tarlo’s book how closely tied this identity of cloth is between the two countries.

I’ll be writing more about as I re-enter Oaxaca. It’s important to look at indigenous clothing not only as beautiful textiles but as significant for supporting local economic development. Cloth has value. It is a root of identity.



7 responses to “Clothing Matters: Dress and Identity in Oaxaca

  1. Thank you for your wonderful blog, Norma. I look forward to every post and am especially looking forward to your further posts on this subject. A few years ago, while in San Miguel I was told that the Mexican cotton industry is practically non existent and that nearly all cotton is imported from India now. That was very disappointing to hear and during my trip to Oaxaca last November I tried to find evidence of local production. I was very happy to see that textiles were an important part of local culture but I was never sure if they were being produced locally or were mainly imported. Can you enlighten us?

    • Pauline, thanks for following and enjoying the blog. I appreciate it immensely. I’ll try to answer your question to the best of my knowledge: There are two native, wild cotton species in Oaxaca — an amazing and rare green cotton that is a soft pale green-gray and the coyuchi cotton that is the color of caramel. Both are expensive and grown in the mountain region between Oaxaca city and the west coast of Oaxaca. You get there on a winding road on the way to Huatulco. There are cooperatives, like Khadi Oaxaca in San Sebastian Rio Hondo, that cultivate the plants, then hand-spin the fiber, make skeins, dye it and then weave the cloth. The white European cotton, brought by the Spanish, is also grown here and is much more plentiful. A major cotton region of Mexico is in Puebla state and there are commercial mills there that process and machine spin the fiber.

  2. Norma

    Do you have an idea where to buy KHADI cotton? by the meter or yard thank you

  3. You should interview Marcos at Khadi of Oaxaca – as he will tell you his story of living in the Ghandi ashram and learning to spin his own threads and weaving his own clothing which was part of the Ghandi spiritual practice. He brought back this knowledge to San Felipe del Rio community, where he had previous connections, and introduced the Ghandi spinning wheel there. Initially they were weavers of wool blankets and used back-strap looms, but when the ‘telar de pedal’ was brought to the village they began to make this beautiful cloth with coyuchi and natural dyed hand-spun cotton thread.

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