This costume has an interesting name: China Poblana. A "poblana" is a woman from the town of Puebla, and "china" means Chinese - or more generically, Asian. As the story goes, in the 17th century a young female slave was brought to Mexico from China - or maybe India, or Malaysia. In any case, she was Asian. She refused to dress like the Mexican women of her era, steadfastly retaining her Asian dress. She became known as La China Poblana, and in later life converted to Catholicism, became a nun and was venerated as a saint in Puebla. The connection between La China Poblana of legend, and the costume style that bears her name is a little murky.
In the 19th century, after Mexico had gained its independence from Spain, it was important to strengthen - or create - a sense of national identity. It made sense to promote images and traditions that, instead of favoring one region or indigenous group over another, united all Mexicans. Take a snippet of traditional dress from here, from there, and mix it with a legend of a venerated saint, and soon you have a national costume!
The China Poblana consisted of a white cotton embroidered blouse with a low neckline, a gathered skirt cinched at the waist with a wide sash. Women often wore a shawl with this outfit, and wore their hair in braids or tucked flowers into their hair.
Angela Villaba's wonderful book, "Mexican Calendar Girls", showcases the images like the one above, used on popular calendars and advertising art of the early part of the twentieth century. The paintings present images of Mexican women that emphasized the popular ideal of Mexican culture, yet drew on Hollywood and American standards of female beauty. Many calendar-art paintings depict Mexican women dressed in the classic China Poblana outfit.
I recently talked with John and Lise Thomas, who are dealers of vintage Mexican textiles and clothing. Their collection features several examples of Chinas Poblanas. This blouse is embroidered with the image of the Mexican eagle, clutching a serpent, along with its colorful roses.
This is the Mexican national symbol, and it appears on the flag of Mexico. The symbolism goes back to Aztec lore. The legend is they migrated across the desert until they saw a large eagle with a serpent in its beak, perched on a cactus, in the middle of a lake. They chose to settle there, and called it Tenochtitlan. This is now the Plaza Major in the center of Mexico City. There is no more Mexican a symbol than the eagle with a serpent.
Another outfit shows a typical design for the skirt - a dropped yoke in one color of silk, changing to a full skirt decorated with sequins and bugle beads.
John Thomas showed me the design picked out on this skirt from their collection - once again, the Mexican eagle and serpent is prominently displayed in sequins and decorative beads. In Mexico, the bugle beads are called "camarones" or shrimp.
Here, Mexican actress Dolores del Rio wears a similar outfit in this publicity shot for the film "Ramona."
This costume became so integral to the image of Mexican femininity that it has become commonplace.
Women in puffy-sleeved Chinas Poblanas advertise beer, seduce American cowboys, and romance the cartoon mouse, Speedy Gonzales.During the 20th century, Anglo and European travelers discovered Mexico, and iconic symbols of the culture became popular embellishments for advertisements and souvenirs marketed to tourists. This vintage railway poster shows a skirt with the same design as the one in John and Lise's collection.
John and Lise's collection features clothing that was targeted toward the tourist trade, such as this felt jacket with crewel-work traditional figures worked on the back:
The man is dressed in a traditional charro outfit, with a sombrero, while the lady wears - what else? - China Poblana.