The iconic rebozo

 

If you have read anything about the Mexican Revolution, then you have very likely seen this photograph (above) which depicts unnamed “Adelitas” or women who fought with or otherwise supported Mexican rebel troops. If you look at the women in this photo, each one is wearing one singular Mexican garment in one way or another… the rebozo.

 

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Woman in blue rebozo (1937) by Luis Marquez

For much of Mexico’s history, the rebozo was an indispensible woman’s garment. Today, however, its use has severely declined. Its use today is mostly associated with indigenous women, and while most Mexican women, indigenous or not, have at least one, it might be worn only for Independence Day ceremonies.

Although today associated with indigenous Mexico, the garment is not pre Hispanic. Its origins are from the early colonial period. The name is Spanish, meaning “to cover,” indicating its original use… as a modesty garment. The origin was likely from lower class mestizos, adapting some elements of indigenous clothing to create something with the same function of the upper-class mantilla (shawl).  One indigenous garment that may have had an effect on its development is the tilma, a large apron-like garment used often for carrying.

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Illustration in an 1888 book

Among those who regularly use it, the rebozo has two uses, a covering for the head and/or upper body and for the carrying of goods and, very often, small children. Rebozos for carrying may be quite long, due to the need to wrap it around the body one or more times. Historically, rebozos were up to two or more meters long, but this is rare today. The most traditional wearers will use them regularly during their entire life and will generally be buried with one.

For the rest of Mexican women, the garment is used mostly as a symbol of being Mexican on certain occasions, especially Independence Day. Ironically, the reason most middle and upper class women do not use it regularly is because it is associated with the poor and indigenous, despite the existence of finely made rebozos worth thousands of pesos. Even when these women wear the rebozo, it is as an accessory, generally draped over the shoulder(s) and/or arm(s), never on the head.

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Margarita Zavala in rebozo con Michelle Obama (credit U.S. government)

There have been influential women who have promoted the rebozo. Fromer first lady Margarita Zavala Gómez del Campo was well known for wearing the garment, especially to state functions, stating “I will not take it off. The rebozo is part of my personality.” in the face of social pressure. Fashion designer Rocio Contreras and others promote the garment, coming up with new ways to wear tie it, wear it and even with new designs such as a smaller version for men to wear similar to a scarf.

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Rebozos from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

In essence, the rebozo is simply a rectangular piece of cloth. It may be of one color, with little or no design (which is sometimes called a chalina) or have myriad of colors and designs, either woven and/or embroidered. Like other traditional women’s clothing such as the huipil and quezquemitl, the style is often determined by where the garment comes from. Guerrero, Chiapas and Michoacan are noted for heavily embroidered rebozos and Santa Maria del Rio, San Luis Potosi is known for the making of silk rebozos. Rebozos are most commonly made of cotton but in colder climes, those made from wool can be found as well. It is rare to find one made with synthetic fibers as most are still woven on looms in Mexico.

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Knotting fringe as a workshop (photo courtesy of the Museo de Arte Popular)

The garment is woven with its intended width, leaving the two ends of the length with fringe. Orginally the knotting was simple to keep the piece from unraveling but in many cases, the knotting have become an important decorative aspect. Fringes can be found knotted in intricate designs, including images and words, and in a number of cases elements such as feathers and beads are added. This knotwork can take far longer than the weaving of the rebozo body.

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Fringe heavy with feathers from Parachi, Ahuiran, Michoacan
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Rebozo depicted in painting by Jose Julio Gaona Adame called “Invierno en la ciudad” (Winter in the city)
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Heavily embroidered rebozo from Acatlán de Osorio, Guerrero (photo:Alejandro Linares Garcia)
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Calimaya design rebozo in progress at the workshop of Inocencio Balboa in Tenancingo, State of Mexico (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)
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