Saturday, October 18, 2008

Brilliant blossoms

When I went to the Golden California Show at the Glendale Civic Auditorium, I was captivated by the display of traditional Mexican clothing and textiles in the booth run by exhibitors John and Lise Thomas. They collect and sell vintage clothing and textiles, with a specialty in Mexican vintage and folk pieces.

This huipil and skirt from Tehuantepec struck my eye immediately. John explained that it dates from around the 1970's and he held out the skirt for me to photograph. The bands of geometric patterns, alternating with the bands of bold, stylized floral images is characteristic of Tehuana work.

So is the exquisite needlework. He turned the huipil inside out to show me - it's almost as finely finished on the underside as it is on the front.

In Southern Mexico and Central America, women are known for their weaving and needlework. A huipil is woven by hand on a back-strap loom, usually of cotton. Panels of fabric are then sewn into a loose blouse or tunic, which is often embroidered. Each village or region has a distinct look, or pattern, or technique, so that people know where someone is from by the details of their clothing.

The city of Tehuantepec is the home of people descended from the indigenous Zapotec people. In days past and still today, women from Tehuantepec - or Tehuanas - have a reputation for being strong matriarchs, controlling their families' financial well-being. Tehuanas are also known for their skill at embroidery, and have long supported their families with their needlework. In Tehuantepec, the traditional huipil and paneled skirt have evolved into an elaborate costume for festivals, made of velvet or satin, and heavily embroidered with flowers and brilliant colors. This has also made them attractive to tourists, creating a lucrative market where skilled artisans thrive, and a creative and competitive artistic culture.

Tehuanas use three different types of stitching on these dresses. The first is called abordar, work by hand to create the flowers and leaves. The second is called costura, and its machine-work that creates some of the geometric banding. The third is called gancho, and it's handwork done with a tool similar to a crochet hook.

The floral patterns are often stylized and geometric in feel, like the piece above

or they can be naturalistic and organic, like this. I love the fresh exuberance of this skirt, which dates from the 1940's - it's as if the sprays of blossoms were real flowers, gathered up in the purple velvet folds of the skirt.

Lise Thomas told me she bought this black satin skirt from its original maker, who wore it herself in the 1930's. Look at the detail in the satin stitch and french knots that make these delightful carnation-like blossoms.

The festival skirts are fuller than everyday skirts, and usually have a ruffle of white lace at the hem. In some depictions of Tehuana costume, the women wear a ruffled head-dress of white or pleated lace.
The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo loved to wear traditional regional costume, particularly Tehuana garb.

This 1939 Nickolas Murray photograph shows Kahlo wearing the Tehuana huipil and embroidered black skirt with its white lace hem. The photo is part of an exhibit called "Frida Kahlo: Through the Lens of Nickolas Murray" now showing at the Palm Springs Museum of Art through November 16. These rarely seen color photos show Kahlo at work, with her husband Diego Rivera, and dressed in the beautiful Mexican costumes she loved so much.

Lise and John Thomas had many other pieces displayed from several regions of Mexico. Each region of Mexico - each village, in fact - has its signature costume, its distinct style of weaving or embroidery. This website by a scholar of Mexican regional costume includes photographs and video of artisans creating these unique works of art.

I'll share more of what I discovered with you, in later posts.


Queenly Things said...

You were right. These make my heart flutter. I have many pieces of clothing with Mexican embroidery. one top very like the one in your first photo. I don't wear them often but I will never part with even one of them.

Anonymous said...

amazing and beautiful work!


Unknown said...

So seriously beautiful! WOW! I can't even imagine being able to sew that well! Truly gorgeous! Thanks for sharing!


They are stunning works of art, each one.