10 junio, 2024

What was the clothing of the Zapotecs like?

The clothing of the zapotecs has varied over time. Despite the fact that it was influenced by other peoples, the Zapotecs feel deeply proud of their traditions, which is why their cultural manifestations are still maintained and celebrated.

The Zapotecs are a Mexican indigenous people who inhabit the state of Oaxaca and part of the surrounding states; especially in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Archaeological evidence locates them in this region for approximately 3,500 years, between the 15th and 14th centuries BC.

The pre-Hispanic Zapotec culture was very rich. They built stepped pyramids, funerary monuments, and ballgame stadiums. In addition, they developed a complete writing system that evolved from hieroglyphics to a phonetic script. They were skilled artisans who worked with goldsmithing and ceramics.

Currently, the Zapotec people are fully aware of this ancestral knowledge and are concerned with conserving it.

And that can be seen in the changes that their way of dressing has undergone and how the typical costume has become a way of reinforcing their Zapotec identity and has even established itself as a reference for all of Mexico for the entire world.

Zapotec clothing: origins and characteristics

Although there is no precise historical data, the first evidence of the way of dressing of the Zapotecs can be found in their primitive sculpture.

In them, it can be seen that both sexes remained bare-chested, the men wearing a kind of loincloth or mastate and the women with a rustic cloth skirt that they made themselves, just to cover the private parts, their hair loose, without ornaments and barefoot.

In more recent ceramic pieces and in the codices, it is possible to observe the incorporation of a rustic jacket, blouse or huipil as a consequence of the Spanish influence, Christian morality during the Conquest of Mexico and to escape impertinent glances.

In the Zapotec culture, women play an important role since it is based on their particular vision of matriarchy. From the beginning, the Zapotecs and their way of dressing would generate admiration among those who observed them.

This is how the French religious and traveler Charles Etienne Brasseur recorded it, who would describe the Tehuana woman (who inhabited the Isthmus of Tehuantepec) in the mid-19th century:

That night she wore a skirt made of striped fabric, aqua green in color… a crimson red silk gauze huipil, embroidered with gold… Her hair, parted at the forehead and braided with long blue ribbons, formed two splendid braids… I repeat it I have never seen a more impressive image of Isis or Cleopatra.

Centuries later, these changes in the clothing of the Zapotecs and their fame would be accentuated with the creation of the railroad tracks, which meant greater contact with foreign fabrics and merchandise.

In this way, influenced from the Philippines by the embroideries of the Manila shawl, the floral motifs of the Andalusian silk embroideries and the ruffles from the Netherlands, the best-known attire of Zapotec culture was formed today: the Tehuana suit.

The Tehuana costume

This costume is the one used by the Zapotec women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Essentially it consists of a huipil, petticoat, ruffle and various accessories that vary according to the occasion.

The huipil and the petticoat are made of velvet, satin, angel skin or peach skin and are usually richly embroidered with floral motifs and very colorful.

Wedding dresses are made in white and mourning in dark colors. The gala dress is used in traditional festivals such as candlelight or the Guelaguetza. The most remarkable thing is that no two suits are the same.

The main characteristic of Zapotec clothing is that it does not differentiate between social classes since, beyond the occasion and the quality of the materials, all the women wear the same garments.

Of all the traditional Mexican clothing, the Tehuana suit is the most entrenched in the foreign imagination.

Perhaps it is due to exposure to 20th century art and cinema. From the clothing of María Félix in the film Tizoc with Pedro Infante, to the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti.

The huipil

The huipil is a short-sleeved blouse, made of a rectangular fabric, made up of several joined parts that are folded in half and with an opening for the head, to later be fitted to the body at the sides.

They are made in a wide variety of colors and designs, woven and embroidered by hand or mechanically.

the petticoat

The petticoat is a skirt that must match the motifs and colors of the huipil. It also has a lace and is combined with a slip, called holán, made of a hard and starched fabric that serves as a background or armor. This combination of petticoat and ruffle is called a rabona.

Footwear and accessories

Traditionally, Zapotec women went barefoot. But then they used sandals called huaraches and, currently, low-heeled shoes.

A fundamental aspect in the Tehuana costume is the headdress, since it does not have only an aesthetic intention.

Although it must be combined with the motifs of the rest of the clothing, its main function is to indicate the sentimental situation of the woman: if it is used on the left side, it means that she is single and without commitment. If it is a married or engaged woman, the headdress will be worn on the right side.

Another striking garment is the glow or bidaniro, which is used on special occasions or to go to mass.

It consists of an opening where it fits the face, surrounding it with a large cut of lace. This piece would be representative because she was on the 10 Mexican pesos bill after winning a typical Mexican costume contest.

Other accessories, such as gold jewelry, can be part, as the occasion allows: bracelet, bangles, twists, pectorals and chokers.

the masculine attire

In the case of men, the typical clothing was blanket clothing with hats and sandals. At present, black dress pants, guayaberas or white Philippine sandals, huaraches, a bandanna and a hat are used.


«Regional Tehuana costume: The attire that surrounds the Mexican woman, in fabrics of beauty, tenderness and tradition». Retrieved on June 2, 2017 at hojaescrita.wordpress.com.
«Zapotecs». Retrieved on June 2, 2017 at basica.primariatic.sep.gob.mx.
Becerra de la Cruz, Gilda (2013). “The Tehuana costume: Its transformation and representation in art. The conformation of a social image between myth and reality”. Retrieved on June 2, 2017 at comitemelendre.blogspot.com.
Campbell, Howard, and Susanne Green (1999). “History of the representations of the Zapotec woman of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In: Studies on Contemporary Cultures. Vol. V. No. 9, Colima, June 1999, pp. 89-112.
Ramos, Oscar (2016). «The headdress of the Tehuana woman». Retrieved on June 2, 2017 in revista.escaner.cl.

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