In addition to cultural appropriation, there is a debate raging about what to call the hand-woven, back-strap loomed garments from Mexico that many of us know as huipiles. This is plural. The singular is huipil. (Some huipiles for sale below!)
How do you say it?
(or What do you do with a banana? We peel. — Thank you, Mary Randall)
Caftan (kaftan) or tunic is a misnomer. I am reminded of this via a text message this morning from Ana Paula Fuentes, who introduced me to Las Sanjuaneras some years ago and was the founding director of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. I promised her that you and I would have a discussion about Mexican clothing as a way to spread the word about culture.
I just want to set the record straight that I called these garments thus because it is what the American and Canadian marketplace knows and understands as a fashion definition. We’ve been acculturated since the 60’s when these garments came to us from Europe and North Africa and Asia as casual wear, beach and pool wear, loungewear. Now, with Covid-19, the idea is being reintroduced to the world of contemporary clothing as a perfect solution to comfort while we are homebound.
Let’s have the conversation: Clothing origins from Mexico deserve to be called by their true name. Huipil. Bluson. Blusa. Rebozo. Quechquemitl. Etc. And, we can spread the word about the quality of Mexico’s indigenous weaving by using the true name of the garment. People need to know these are huipiles. Not caftans or tunics.
Bluson: A short, cropped flowing version of a huipil, usually waist-length or hip-length.
Blusa: A blouse, more fitted than free-form; a universal term.
Rebozo: A shawl whose origins are from the Philippines via Spain.
Quechquemitl: A triangular pull-over shawl, scarf, cover-up that is pre-Hispanic and the first indigenous garment.
So, help us out here. When you wear one of these garments, call it a Huipil. Together, we can be influencers and talk about Mexico as being a fashion innovator rather than a follower of Euro-centric style. You give value to the weavers this way, too. Thank you.
Still some beauties from Las Sanjuaneras For Sale
To Buy: Please email me email@example.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. Please be sure to select Send Money to Family and Friends! We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal.
This morning I received a link to this article from Vogue Mexico that features Oaxaca clothing designers modeled by Oaxaca indigenous woman Karen Vega. This grabbed my attention for many reasons. Just as there is a movement in the United States to recognize non-traditional beauty, i.e. a departure from a fashion industry defined by tall, lanky, undernourished white girls, we are seeing something different.
This is especially important in Mexico, where fashion models have always represented the European-centric image of superiority and style. Those with Spanish heritage — long legs, lighter skin, sculpted faces — are prized for their beauty and promoted as the standard of beauty to attain.
Since Yalitza Aparicio made her debut in the 2018 award-winning film, Roma, indigenous woman are defining a new standard of beauty and talent.
Oaxaca, long considered a fashion backwater, is coming into her own as a center for creative style. I am familiar with most of the designers featured in this article below. Some are adapting indigenous design to contemporary application. Some may be accused of cultural appropriation, taking snippets of weavings and embroidery and repurposing them into contemporary blouses and dresses that only vaguely resemble the original indigenous textile.
These designers are from Oaxaca. Perhaps they have more of a right to do this than the international designers who swoop in and market huipiles they call kaftans to an unsuspecting, fashion-hungry public, priced in the stratosphere, giving no credit or compensation to sources.
Be that as it may, we now get to applaud 18-year old Mexican model Karen Vega, who is helping to pave the way for others and for us to embrace beauty with a different paradigm.
Mexican Model Karen Vega Is Bringing Oaxacan Pride to the Fashion World
At 18-years-old, Karen Vega is off to a strong start with her career in fashion. The Mexican model, who is from Oaxaca, got her big break when she recently appeared in the pages of Vogue Mexico’s July issue, becoming the first Oaxacan model to do so in the publication’s history. “It was a great surprise, from the moment I received the invitation,” Vega says. “The day I had the magazine in my hands and I could see my portrait in print, my family was incredibly happy. It was a dream that we
As of Friday, morning, Oct. 11 — Still Available: #2, #3, #4, #6, #8, #9, #10, #13. Many choices! Time is ticking
I return to Oaxaca next week with a stopover in Mexico City to lead the Art History Tour focusing on the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Meanwhile, before I leave the USA, I usually go through my collection to review what I want to part with. Here is outstanding weaving and embroidery from all over Mexico — Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guadalajara. The 13-piece selection is below. Look carefully!
Note: All sizes are Large/Extra Large unless otherwise noted. Several are Collector Pieces: #1, #2, #3 and #13
To Buy: Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, address, and item number. I will send you an invoice to pay with credit card. Once I receive your funds, I will mail via USPS to anywhere in the USA. Prices include mailing cost. Please buy and pay before Monday, October 14, 2019. This will give me enough time to pack and mail before I return to Mexico on October 16. Thank you VERY much.
Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.
Okay. I’m angry.
Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.
It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.
Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.
Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.
What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:
the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far
I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.
But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.
Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:
Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.
In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:
We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.
And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:
… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.
She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.
Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.
It’s the end of #fashionrevolution week. It begs us to ask the question: #whomademyclothes What do we wear and how does what we wear make us feel … or do we even think about it? Some of us, me included, choose to wear clothing designed and made by indigenous women.
These are ancient designs, considered part of cultural heritage. These are styles that come with creativity, innovation, dedicated work, long hours bent over dye baths and back-strap looms, from regions of isolation and impoverishment. Most are not copyright protected. Some are lost art resuscitated by a new generation of sewists and designers.
Some of us want to believe that we are part of a socially responsible fashion movement. Many of us want to meet the maker or at least know who made our clothes. We read labels to know fiber content and country of origin. We buy at consignment and thrift shops to reuse the perfectly discarded.
Why do I buy and wear clothes from other cultures? Am I playing dress-up, just like I did as a young girl, fantasizing about being different or noticed? Do I have the right (and privilege) as a first-world Anglo to don the clothing of an indigenous culture far from my own roots? Is this colonial behavior, admiration … or something else? Must I conform to wearing socially and politically correct cloth by adhering to Western style?
In this era of fast and disposable fashion, where we have thousands of choices, I think these are questions worth examining. Perhaps the answers are justifications for how we dress. Perhaps the answers dig deeper into our own values and motivations. Perhaps its a simple answer: It is just beautiful.
I think it’s important to be aware of fashion that borrows or combines style elements from one or several indigenous cultures. We see designs digitally copied or cut from whole cloth, applied to machine woven material, then sewn into a tailored dress. They become the hem or the bodice or collar, far from their origins. Renown designers do this. So do mass marketers. The original versions would have been squares or rectangles woven on back-strap looms, joined with embroidery, complete garments loose and comfortable.
Which is why I like to wear indigenous cloth. The reasons are practical. They are made with natural fibers — cotton or silk. They are easy to wear and are usually washable by hand with mild soap and cool water, so taking care of them is easier (and cheaper). In hot North Carolina and Oaxaca summers, and warm Oaxaca winters, loose weaves keep me cool.
There are emotional reasons, too. My grandfather was a tailor. He made all my mother’s clothes by hand. He knew the importance of fine detail. My mother taught me to make small, almost invisible stitches on hems and seams, the clothes I continue to make and repair. I think of the labor-intensity of a hand-made piece of cloth and I think of the generations of makers, women and men, who came before me, and I think of my family.
How I feel when I wear a huipil from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, for example, is more complex.
The cloth is made by women and men from a different culture from my own. This offers me a chance to honor what they do and to create connection between us. To see the similarities instead of paying attention to differences. In the buying of what they make, I contribute to their ability to sustain their culture, their craft, and their families. This is intimate and personal and gives me a great deal of satisfaction. This, I believe, is cultural appreciation. I have a chance in the act of wearing, I think, to narrow the divide.
In wearing these clothes, do I say I want to be different from who I am? That I want to take on the persona of another. I think not. What I want to communicate is that I am a woman beyond borders, where clothing tells a story of unlimited possibility. For me, it is a subtle statement that we share more in common than not and serves to tell the world a little about me — albeit unspoken.
By now, most of us know ourselves, our personalities, what we like, what looks good on us, what we are comfortable with. Identity is conveyed by clothing choices. Mine say: I am free, independent and strong. I like quirky style, I like color, I like cultural variation and respect diversity, conventions be damned.
So, I admit it. I am respectfully appropriating the culture of Mexico or Japan or India or Guatemala, where I have traveled and shopped in remote corners where talented people in humble circumstances create beauty. It is not offensive to me to wear these garments because I believe I understand their origins, the political and social struggles of marginalized makers. I do not live their lives, yet I sympathize by wearing their cloth.
Your thoughts and responses are welcome.
Recently, I was invited by Selvedge Magazine, London, United Kingdom, to contribute an article about Chiapas textiles. It will be published soon. They asked about what inspires me to work with artisans in Mexico and introduce people to the makers. I’ll be writing more about that here, too.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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