In January 2015, a controversy erupted when singer Susana Harp uploaded two photographs onto her social networks: one of a blouse by designer Isabel Marant, and the other with traditional blouses worn by the Mixe women of the small mountain community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec. This was followed by a charge of plaguarism.
The post remained viral until May 2015, and in following month the president of the municipality, Erasmo Hernandez Gonzalez, held a press conference at the Oaxaca Textile Museum, condeming the “cultural appropriation” of the blouse design for financial gain.
Interestingly enough, by the time that the controversy erupted, Marant was in a legal dispute with another Frence fashion house, Antik Batik, who claimed that Marant stole the design from them. While the uproar in Mexico was a public relations problem for Marant, it provided some legal cover by allowing them to state that their blouses were inspired by the Tlahuitoltepec dress and to then state that they laid no claim on the design.
The issue resurged in the fall when rumors surfaced (including a petition on change.org) claiming that the designer had a patent issued to her by French courts, which would require the native artisans of the town to pay royalty fees in order to create the blouses. This rumor proved false, but it reinforced the sense of urgency among activists and Mexican cultural officials to take steps to protect traditional designs.
One issue is that many of traditional designs have no single author and/or date back so far in time that legal copyright protections are very limited or non-existent. A Guardian article from June 17th of that year claims the designs are 600 years old, which would be well beyond the limit for putting designs in to the public domain.
Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec (or Tlahui for short) is located the rugged terrain of the Sierra Mixe mountains. It is only about 80km due east of the city of Oaxaca, but it is a world away in both climate and way of life. While the city is warm and dry most of the year, Tlahuitoltepec is higher, significantly colder and receives more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, generating light rain and fog. The only way to reach the town from the capital is by a winding road from Mitla, making the town about 2.5+hours away by car.
There is precious little flat land here and Tlahui, along with other Mixe communities, are settled precariously on ledges on the mountains. The ruggedness of the terrain has allowed the Mixe to keep much of their traditional way of life. Most speak Mixe along with Spanish and many signs are in both languages, or just in Mixe. Isolation also means that individual Mixe communities are distinct from one another. Traditional dress varies quite a bit from community to community, even between those only a few km apart. For this reason the the blouse in question is claimed only by the women of Tlahui, as it is original only to this community, not Mixe women in general.
Agriculture is still a basis of the economy as the area does not see much or any tourism. Almost all of the women, such as Delfina Gomez Martinez, work at making these traditional blouses, along with long, flowing calico skirts and wraparound belts. Some are made for local consumption, but most are made for sale and most of these go to resellers in the city of Oaxaca.
The construction of the blouses are interesting the base material is a light to medium-weight cotton muslin, usually white or off white, but other colors such as navy blue or black may be used. Although the originally embroidered by hand, modern Tlahui blouses are almost always embroidered using sewing machines. The one at the Gomez workshop is an old 1930s Singer straight stitch only. In a way, this makes the embroidery more impressive as most machine embroidery either looks commercial, such as that on polo shirts, or tacky. One reason Tlahui blouses keep their handcraft appearance is that the designs adapt well to the use of sewing machines. Elements such as flowers and maguey plants are developed working with how home sewing machines stitch, rather than trying to force them to imitate hand-stitching. For example, elements are interlinked using one or more strands of stitching, eliminating the need to finish an element, tie it off and move onto another section. Elements are small and repetitive, eliminating the need to fill in large areas of empty space. Few elements need to have perfectly straight lines, so small deviations are not a distraction.
Elements are mostly found on yokes, collars and sleeves, parts of a blouse or shirt which can have the embroidery done before assembling the rest of the garment or can be done easily on a machine after the garment is assembled. One important aspect of the stitching is that it looks the same both on the inside and outside of the garment. According to Gomez’s husband, some in the town had experimented using commerical embroidery machines, but the long, loose threads on the inside (wrong) side of the garment made the work unacceptable to the community.
Whether or not the French blouses were indeed plaguarism, the controversy does underline the need to document and even popularize traditional designs. Where the law cannot protect from imitation, education can help, allowing consumers to know where designs come from and empower them to find authentic pieces, made by true artisans. Hopefully, the controversy can work in the favor of the women of Tlahuitoltepec, raising the demand for their work.