GUATEMALA CITY — With their brightly colored fabrics filled with animals and landscapes, Guatemala’s indigenous people had long used textiles to tell stories and share their visions of the universe. In modern times, however, those same fabrics made their wearers targets for discrimination, marking them as part of the country’s poor and indigenous.
Now, embroidered Mayan textiles known as huipiles are undergoing a revival in some of the country’s finest boutiques as they become a haute couture fixture. Young Guatemalan designers are using them for everything from evening gowns and purses to handmade shoes sold as far away as Dubai.
For many here, the widening use of huipiles fits a wider embrace of the country’s indigenous roots, with musicians, designers and even politicians adopting Mayan languages and themes. That’s also happening in other countries with strong indigenous traditions, such as Bolivia and Mexico, where such clothing and culture are overcoming long-held societal stigmas.
For Adela Qel, a 45-year-old Kaqchikel indigenous woman wearing a huipil in the rural region of Sacatepequez, that acceptance in the fashion world reflects her own pride.
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“It doesn’t bother me that they use the typical clothing because if they like it, I can’t be mad about this,” Qel said. “I am proud of my dress.”
The fabrics come in dazzling colors, interwoven in bands and geometric patterns, often worn as tunics or dresses. In Guatemala’s design houses, that’s translated into pumps, ties and purses that stand out from the usual sober colors displayed in high-end stores.
The Maria’s Bags label has seen surprising success with its indigenous-based designs, with the label selling its purses in Bloomingdale’s department stores around the world.
Eduardo Figueroa, a high-couture designer, said modernizing the Mayan designs helps nonindigenous people appreciate this ethnic fashion. Already, some of the new creations have been seen in the wardrobes of Guatemalan political figures and celebrities. And Guatemalans living in the United States and other countries have particularly embraced the designs.
“I am inspired by color and Guatemalan textiles are rich in color,” Figueroa said. “There were people who would tell you that they thought that traditional textiles were just for cushions and tablecloths, but I tell them that they can be used in many ways.”
Shoe designer Karim Corzo said the new trend also meant an economic boost for the communities who have long made the fabrics.
“They allow us to give work to the women who weave them and sell them,” Corzo said.
Guatemalan rapper Tzutu Baktun Kan saw a larger cultural move toward his country’s indigenous roots, hearkening back to the first millennium when present-day Guatemala sat in the heart of the Mayan empire.
“What we are trying to do is strengthen the Mayan languages that little by little are not being spoken,” said Kan, who performs in the indigenous language of Tzutujil. “We want to open more spaces that break the ties of racism.”
Under Spanish colonial rule, indigenous Guatemalans were forced to use traditional outfits specific to the region they lived in so the authorities could better identify them. Over the years, the embroidery of those outfits became a unique means of self-expression, with the designs incorporating elements such as the Mayan calendar and images of conjurers who people believed could take animal form, said Alvaro Pop, a United Nations expert on indigenous cultures.
“The Mayans took all their world views and their oral traditions and expressed their thoughts and ideas on their outfits,” Pop said.
“When you are outside of the country you think it’s beautiful but by modernizing these traditional textiles we are getting Guatemalans (in the country) to wear them,” Corzo said.
A pair of high-couture shoes runs from $50 to $150; a gown can cost between $300 and $800.
Eventually, Pop said, some of that money should go back to the communities, which are among this impoverished country’s poorest and most marginalized. One of their greatest remaining possessions, he said, is their millennia-old culture.
“Ethnic fashion is a trend around the world but we have to be very careful to not simply infringe on the copyright of the indigenous creators of the textiles,” he said. “Each textile they make is absolutely unique, they don’t make it twice and that intellectual property should be paid for, too.”