America, Central, and Mexico: History of Dress

Margot Blum Schevill. Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion. Editor: Valerie Steele. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.

Cultural artifacts such as clothing and cloth also serve as signs that communicate visually in a silent language. This communication is a kind of visual literacy: becoming familiar with the language of textiles is similar to learning how to read, only it means learning how to read cloth, clothing, and how it is worn. To the untrained eye, traditional clothing worn by indigenous people of Mexico and Central America may impress and startle. It may be embroidered or handwoven in rainbow colors with geometric, floral, animal, or human images, or elaborated with commercial trims. Clothing may convey categories relating to rank, class, status, region or town, religion, or age (Schevill 1986).


Mexico and Central America encompass cool temperate highlands and warm tropical lowlands and islands. The great northern desert is intersected by the Sierra Madre, which extends into Southern Mexico and Central America and forms the highlands and is inhabited predominantly by indigenous people. To the west is the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea lie to the east. Volcanoes, dense tropical jungles, long stretches of beaches, deep canyons, and fertile mountain valleys share a cultural history dating for over 3,000 years, from 1500 B.C.E. to C.E. 1519. Great ceremonial centers flourished in remote geographical areas connected by trade networks. Contrasting environmental conditions and a wide range of raw materials have influenced the evolution of clothing and have fostered the variety of styles in use in the early twenty-first century.

Persistence and Innovation

Why have typical clothing and cloth production persisted in parts of Mexico, Guatemala, and Panama, and not in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica? Some factors to consider are: the geographic isolation of towns and regions; the continuance of markets and the fiesta cycle; the symbolization of town ideals in clothing; and the differentiation of civil-religious hierarchies through clothing. Closer to the urban areas, men’s and children’s Western-style dress has replaced typical clothing. The desire to dress like the rest of the world, encouraged by television and tourism, has created a market for jeans, T-shirts, and sport shoes. In the past, outsiders stereotyped indigenous communities as inherently conservative and resistant to change. Two conflicting principles, however, affect textile production: the artistic, creative impulse to innovate and the conservative constraint, which is tradition-bound. Artists of the loom and needle respond to new materials, techniques, and patrons—who are tourists, entrepreneurs, or advisers involved in marketing textiles abroad. The fashion impulse is part of innovation, and new clothing trends among certain age groups may be observed in the way a garment is worn, the colors and designs, and layout (Schevill 1997, pp. 129-143).

Dress Form Survivals

Present in contemporary indigenous dress are what some call pre-Columbian dress form survivals, such as the woman’shuipil, or upper body garment, and the small shoulder quechquémitl, or shawl, as well as the man’s calzones, or pants, and a sleeveless jacket, xicolli. Hispanic dress form survivals also exist. Women’s blouses, head veils, gathered skirts, men’s tailored pants and jackets, sombreros, and, of course, shoes for both men and women are only a few examples.

Western and Traditional Combinations

Urban and rural males still leave their homes seasonally to work on large coffee and cotton fincas (plantations) and wear Western-style clothing in order to avoid racial discrimination against them. But at fiesta time, people return to their communities and wear typical clothing and participate in traditional activities called costumbre. Women and men may use several elements of traditional clothing along with Western-style dress. The rebozo or perraje, a shawl, is a good example (Logan et al. 1994). Both ladinas and mestizas (persons of mixed Indian, African, and/or Spanish ancestry who do not belong to one of the indigenous cultural groups) include rebozos in their dress ensemble. Another fashion phenomenon relates to adaptations of other than Spanish foreign dress styles. The Tarahumaras (Raramuris) of Chichuahua’s Sierra Madre, under the influence of the missionaries, adopted aspects of non-Indian culture, while retaining traditional arts, such as weaving. Their clothing is hand-sewn of commercial patterned cloth with full skirts and blouses, some with peplums. Women cover their heads with cloths in a bandanna style, while men continue to wear turbans and loincloths of white commercial cotton (Green 2003). The male Mam speakers of Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Huehuetenango (Guatemala), adapted black woolen tailored overpants, a style worn by the French Navy who visited Guatemala in the mid-nineteenth century and wear them over their own handwoven long pants. In southeastern Central America, off the northern coast of Panama, are the San Blas islands inhabited by the indigenous Kunas. The women’smolas, or blouses, are made of commercial multicolored cotton. Two similar intricately hand-stitched appliquéd panels adorn a woman’s blouse front and back. Some of the imagery reflects outside influences as seen in billboards, advertisements, and television.

The Art of the Weaver

Before the Conquest, a woman was expected to weave for herself and her family and to produce ceremonial clothes for use in temples and as offerings. A fine weaver had status in the community, as she does as late as the twenty-first century. Clothing and cloth also produced extra income when made for sale. Children learned by imitation, watching their mothers spin, prepare yarn, warp the loom, and weave. By the age of twelve, whether or not they like it, weaving must be taken seriously. Before that, it is like a game, but by the marrying age of sixteen, a woman must be an accomplished weaver.


The backstrap loom has been in use in Mexico and Central America since 1500 B.C.E. A Classic Maya ceramic figurine recovered from Jaina Island off the eastern coast of Mexico is of a weaver at her backstrap loom. This loom is sometimes called the hip-loom, or stick-loom (telar de palitos), and although both male and female indigenous weavers produce cloth on this simple apparatus, it is largely associated with women. When the cloth, often selvaged on both ends, is removed from the loom, only the sticks and ropes remain. Also in use are staked, horizontal looms and floor or treadle looms introduced by the Spanish after the Conquest. Weaving of this kind was taught to indigenous males, who soon learned how to produce yardage, a requisite for the cut-and-sew tailored fashions of the Spanish. In the early 2000s, Zapotec male weavers in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca (Mexico), weave fine woolen rugs and blankets on treadle looms, and double-ikat cotton cloth for skirts is woven in Salcajá, Quezaltenango (Guatemala), by Maya men. Both male and female weavers in the Totonicapán (Guatemala) area use a unique loom that combines features of the back-strap and treadle loom to create headbands. In addition, both draw and jacquard loom weavers produce yardage of great complexity.


Cotton has been the most important fiber for weavers since pre-Columbian times. The two varieties are a long-staple white cotton and a short-staple, tawny colored cotton known as ixcaq, ixcaco, coyuche, or cuyuscate. Agave, yucca, and other vegetal fibers, as well as dyed rabbit hair and feathers are still in use. The feathered wedding dress continues to be worn by the Tzotzil women of Zinacantán, Chiapas (Mexico). After the Spanish introduced sheep, wool was readily adopted by native weavers for its warmth, its sturdy and thick texture, and its ability to take dyes. For ornamentation, colored imported silk, pearl cotton, assorted embroidery cottons, and synthetic yarn are employed.


Because of the paucity of archaeological textile remains, it is not known with certainty what natural dyes were employed in pre-Columbian textiles. The painted codices, ceramics, and other visual material give some clues (Anawalt 1981). Indigo (blue), brazil wood, and cochineal (red), palo de tinta (black), cinnabar (red-brown), and purpura patula(lavender) may have been in use. The 1856 invention of chemical dyes in Europe expanded the color palette throughout the world. These dyes were quickly adopted and used along with some of the natural dyes. By early 2000s, natural dyes were reintroduced to many Mexican and Guatemalan weavers and embroiderers. Rainbow coloring is a predictable and enjoyable aspect of twenty-first-century clothing.


Warp-predominant cloth with supplementary weft brocading is one of the most frequently represented combinations. It is a technique for decorating the cloth while still on the loom. There are three types of brocading: single-faced with a pattern recognizable on one side; twofaced with the decorative yarn floating on the reverse side between pattern areas forming an inverse of the design; and double-faced brocading that creates a nearly identical pattern on both sides. Other techniques include, first and foremost, embroidery, then knitting, beading, crocheting, and more. As with the acceptance of chemical dyes, the advent of the sewing machine and availability of commercial cloth and trims have replaced in many areas what was formerly accomplished by hand.


Iconography is varied. Geometric shapes, plants, animals, and human images are woven in a representational, stylized, or abstract fashion. The precise meaning of these designs to the weavers may never be known, as they are a part of the collective consciousness or mythical history and not actually discussed. Clothing is memory.

Garment Repertoire

There is a great variety of indigenous clothing worn throughout this vast geographic area. The individual garment styles, however, are a shared tradition.

Women. The upper garment or huipil, a Nahua word, is the most important component of a woman’s clothing. Nahua was the language of the Aztecs and is still spoken in many Mexican communities. The huipil can be short or long, of two or three backstrap or floor-loomed pieces joined together, sometimes with a decorative stitching, and neck and arm openings. Designs are woven in as part of the weaving process, embroidered or commercial fabrics, such as ribbons or rickrack, can be added. Particularly fine, handwoven; or embroidered huipiles are worn by the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, Mexico, and by the Mayas of Chiapas, Yucatán, and Guatemala. Skirts are either wraparound and held in place by wide or narrow handwoven belts or gathered to a waistband. The fabric can be either solid colored, commonly dark blue, or patterned floor-loomed cotton. The tie-dyed or ikat (jaspe) multicolored skirts of the K’iche’ and Cakchiquel Mayas (in Guatemala) are outstanding. Multipurpose backstrap-loomed cloths are essential for covering the head and to wrap food or objects. Aprons are cut-and-sew garments, a Hispanic dress form survival that serves decorative as well as functional purposes. The adornment of the head and hair is especially important. The Yalalags of Oaxaca use heavy yarn headdresses, while many Mayas wear tapestry woven headbands with elaborate tassels. The women of the northern Sierra of Puebla (Mexico) have perfected the art of the embroidered blouse with the sewing machine (Anawalt and Berdan 1994). In the early 2000s, young Maya women of Chiapas embroidered motifs on their blouses of commercial cloth, whereas in the past, the decoration was the result of supplementary weft brocading. The quechquémitl, or capelike shoulder garment, is still worn by older Nahua and Otomi women in Puebla, while large shoulder cloths are in general use throughout the area. Sandals and jewelry complete the woman’s dress ensemble.

Men. Tailored pants, loose-fitting and held up with a wide belt, are of white manta or commercial cotton, as well as handwoven multicolored cloth. As with women’s huipiles, the shirts may be loom-decorated. Shoulder bags are knitted or crocheted in cotton and wool. Often, men create their own bags. Others are made for sale, a popular tourist item. In colder areas, men need overgarments of black or multicolored wool and shoulder or hip blankets. Handwoven head cloths may be worn under the sombrero in a pirate fashion. Hatbands often adorn the sombreros. Tailored cotton or wool jackets, along with the sleeveless style, are worn over the shirt. Men also wear sandals or shoes.

Children. Children dress as their parents do when possible, in smaller versions of typical clothing.

Occasions for Special Clothing

Each region has distinctive styles of dress for special occasions; these styles are derived from family or area traditions and sometimes pay tribute to historical happenings.

Cofradías. There are religious organizations associated with the Catholic Church for men and women called cofradías.Participants take care of the church, the statues of saints, and sponsor religious ceremonies often in their own homes. The women wear ceremonial huipiles, and men demonstrate their importance in the community with special head cloths, jackets, and hats.

Contests, Festivals, Fiestas. The indigenous population wears special clothing on festive occasions. For example, in El Salvador for fiestas, white ruffled cotton blouses with red embroidery and long white ruffled skirts replace Western-style dress (Valasquez 2003). In many regions of Guatemala and Mexico, there are beauty contests in which the indigenous and ladina contestants wear the most beautiful traditional clothing available. Fiestas celebrating the saints’ days are the occasion for costumed dances that are often of Spanish origin, and special rented dance costumes are required on these occasions. The quinceañera or fifteenth birthday party for a young woman is another occasion for special clothing.

Contemporary Mexican and Central American dress owes its richness and variety to the fusion of clothing styles and textiles from the Old and New Worlds.