Clothing and Embroidery
Although traje (ancestral tribal dress) has become uncommon in Oaxaca City, significant numbers of Oaxacan native women make and wear traje, especially in the Mazateca, Chinantla, and Zapotec Sierra in the north, the Isthmus in the southeast, the coastal Mixteca in the southwest, and the Trique in the Mixteca Alta in the west.
The most common traje garment is the huipil, a full, square-shouldered, short- to mid-sleeved dress, often hand-embroidered with animal and floral designs and embellished with ribbons. Probably the most popular Oaxaca huipiles are the captivating designs from San Pedro de Amusgos (Amusgo tribe; white cotton embroidered with abstract colored animal and floral motifs). Others nearly as prized include the Trique styles from around San Andrés Chicahuaxtla (white cotton, richly embroidered red stripes, interwoven with green, blue, and yellow, and hung with colored ribbons); Mazatec, from Huautla de Jiménez (white cotton with bright flowers embroidered in multiple panels, crossed by horizontal and vertical purple and magenta silk ribbons); and Isthmus Zapotec, from Tehuántepec (brightly colored cotton densely embroidered with either geometric designs or a field of flamboyant, multicolored flowers).
Oaxaca shops and stalls also sell other, less common types of traje. These include the quechquémitl (shoulder cape), often made of wool and worn as an overgarment in winter, and the enredo, a full-length skirt that wraps around the waist and legs like a Hawaiian sarong.
Mixtec women in Oaxaca’s warm southwest coastal region around Pinotepa Nacional commonly wear the enredo, known locally as the pozahuanco (poh-sah-WAHN-koh), below the waist and, when at home, go bare-breasted. When wearing their pozahuancos in public, they usually tie a mandil, a wide apron, around their front side.
Women weave the most prized pozahuancos using cotton thread dyed a light purple with secretions of tidepool-harvested snails (Purpura patula pansa) and silk dyed deep red with cochineal, an extract from the dried bodies of a locally cultivated scale insect, Dactylopius coccus. On a typical day, two or three women will be selling handmade pozahuancos at the Pinotepa Nacional market.
Colonial-era Spanish styles have blended with native traje, producing a wider class of dress, known generally as ropa típica. Lovely embroidered blusas (blouses), rebozos (shawls), and vestidos (dresses) fill shop racks and market stalls all over Oaxaca. Among the most popular is the so-called Oaxaca wedding dress, made of cotton with a crochet-trimmed riot of diminutive flowers hand-stitched about the neck and yoke. Some of the finest examples are made in San Antonino Castillo Velasco, just north of Ocotlán on the Valley of Oaxaca’s south side.
In contrast to women, only a small fraction of Oaxacan men—members of remote groups, such as mountain Mazatec and Chinantecs in the north, the Mixes in the east, and rural Chatinos and Amusgos in the southwest—wear traje. Nevertheless, shops offer some fine men’s ropa típica, such as wool jackets and serapes for highland or winter wear and guayaberas, hip-length pleated tropical dress shirts.
Fine bordado (embroidery) embellishes much traditional Oaxacan clothing, manteles (tablecloths), and servilletas (napkins). As everywhere, women define the art of embroidery. Although some work is still handmade at home, cheaper machine-made factory lace and needlework is more commonly available in shops.
Among the most renowned handmade example is the embroidery of Santo Tomás Jalieza, the “town of belts” (cinturones), in the Oaxaca central valley south of Coyotepec. Although best known for their attractive embroidered cloth and leather belts, the townsfolk have adapted their colorful designs to clothing, purses, bags, and much more.
© Bruce Whipperman from Moon Oaxaca, 5th edition