It is the most common and oldest Mexican traditional garment in use, but it is almost unknown to most visitors to the country. Even if tourists see the garment, few know what it is called and almost none know its history or significance.
Mexico has a wide variety of traditional clothing that is still worn, although its use is diminishing. Today, most traditional garments are seen almost exclusively by indigenous women, and even much of this use is relegated to events such as festivals. Some garments are obviously of European origin, developed during the colonial period after the Spanish imposed many of their mores about dress, sometimes with very little change since then.
However, the huipil distinguishes itself as being a purely indigenous garment, with the basic form mostly unchanged. It predates the Conquest by centuries and its use is still common over Mesoamerica, central Mexico into Central America.
The basic form is three long rectangular pieces, stitched together to add width. An opening for head is created such that the garment folds in half over the body, such that two long seams that extend down from the shoulders. The reason for this was that the garment was developed to use fabric hand-woven on backstrap looms, which limit how wide fabric can be. However, instead of hiding the seam, it is more often accentuated with decorative stitching. Even huipils made with commercial fabric today will more often than not be sewn to have these seams. The sides are sewn as well, leaving gaps where the garment folds over the sholders for the arms to go through.
From this basic template, the huipil then takes on a myriad of forms…in how it is worn, but especially how it is decorated. Each indigenous group has its own way of weaving and/or embroidering designs onto the garment, and in many cases, this decoration indicates what community the wearer is from. Colors and designs range from the sublime and delicate pieces of the Amuzgos of Guerrero and Oaxaca to pieces almost completely covered in bright embroidered flowers, animals and geometric patterns. However, the decorations have an even deeper significance in many cultures. Anthropologist Martha Turok initiated a groundbreaking study of Mayan garments to find that many of these designs had symbols with specific meanings, but in many cases these meanings have been lost.
Huipil lengths vary from short pieces used as blouses, to floor length gowns. They may be worn alone or with other garments. Some of the short huipils are traditional, such as those worn with skirts in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, but many others are shortened versions of traditional tunics, which are more popular among tourists as they can be worn easily with jeans. Most huipils are the length of long dresses and depending in the culture and occasion, worn alone, with a skirt, or over a simple dress/tunic. The waist may or may not be tied with a sash or tucked into a skirt.
One unusual use of a modified huipil is as a headress, which is the hallmark of women from Tehuantepec (Tehuanas). This look was made famous by a self portrait of Frida Kahlo, as a Tehuana.
The use of huipils in the Yucatan peninsula are also distinctive. There are two types: those which are similar to huipils in the rest of Mesoamerica, with three panels, and a garment which is really a fusion of a huipil and a European style dress, with a heavily embroidered free-falling yoke over a dress with a wide band of embroidery near or at the hem.
What tourist may more often see are loose blouses with embroidery similar to those on huipils. These blouses generally have a yoke that allows the garment to be fitted over the chest areas, as well as allow for sleeves or sleeve-like arm coverings. However, these are not huipils.
Woman in huipil in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca (credit author)
(Featured image by Alejandro Linares Garcia)