Named after the Nahuatl word huīpīlli, this traditional garment is undoubtedly one you’ve seen before. They’re wildly popular across southeast Mexico and Guatemala especially, in particular with indigenous groups. Walk through any town centre or handicraft market and you’ll see all sorts of colorful variations on this simple, Mesoamerican item of clothing; some are heavily embroidered, whereas others are much more simple. Here’s a brief history of that item you never knew had a name – the huipil.
The huipil – which is most readily equated to a tunic – is commonly made from cotton, but occasionally (in places like Ocotepec and Cuquila, Oaxaca) other materials such as wool are used. Stitching three identical pieces of cloth together forms the garment, although in many communities this stitching is done using ribbons to add a level of decoration. While short blouse-like versions of this loose fitting piece of clothing are arguably most common, a huipil can technically refer to anything from a blouse to a dress and everything that falls in between. Taking the title as the most commonly worn female indigenous garment, the huipil is most often considered an everyday wear garment with more intricate, decorative versions reserved for ceremonial events.
The most obvious distinction between everyday and ceremonial huipils is the level of decoration. However, the style and decorative nature of the huipil varies hugely from one indigenous group to another, despite the basic premise remaining the same. For Chinanteca women in Ojitlán, Oaxaca, wedding dress huipils fall into three categories: the expensive ‘gala’ version, the less detailed ‘pavo’ variation, and finally the ‘pájaros y palomas’ huipil which is white, cheaper and far less ornate. Yalaltec huipils, in contrast, are much simpler, whereas huipils in Tehuantepec are made from heavy velvet and feature richly designed floral imagery. In Chiapas, another state with a large indigenous population, huipils can feature images of saints and deities, as well as animals rich in mythological symbolism. Alternatively, ceremonial versions in Zinacantán maintain pre-Hispanic featherwork by incorporating chicken feathers into the colourful stitching. These colours also make up the lower fringing, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the Mazateco community believed that rainbows were actually the fringe of a huipil.
Although you’ll see women wearing huipils all across the country, the production and use of them is often heavily centred on regions where indigenous communities maintain a stronghold. For example, the Amuzgos (particularly in Xochistlahuaca) rely on the creation and sale of huipils to survive. As a result, huipils often contain unique touches which indicate the community – or even the woman – that produced them. If you fancy learning more about the huipil, you should try and go to the annual Coffee and Huipil festival which takes place in the tiny town of Cuetzalan, Puebla, or check out what is considered to be the oldest huipil in existence at the Museo Nacional de Antropología.