MEXICO CITY — The models who strode the runway at a recent fashion show here were not only showing off the latest in Mexican designs for hundreds of spectators. Wearing midriff-baring tunics and silk tops emblazoned with bright patterns resembling hieroglyphs, they were also harkening way back to their country's sartorial past.
Growing numbers of Mexican designers are drawing inspiration from the pre-Columbian clothing widely worn during the country's bicentennial celebrations last year, and they're coming up with fashions that give tradition a contemporary twist.
Known as huipiles, the long and loose tunics designed with vivid patterns of birds, flowers and geometrical shapes had for centuries identified the origin and marital status of indigenous women in Mexico and Central America.
The huipiles (pronounced wee-PEE-lays) are now being produced with manufactured and non-native fabrics such as silk rather than the cotton and wool that generations of women had worn along with finely woven lace. The clothing has also picked up sex appeal with the cleavage-baring dresses and belly shirts seen in Mexico's trendiest fashion houses.
If anything, the new designs represent a revival for a clothing tradition that has recently fallen out of favor in poverty-stricken Mexican villages where generations of young people have both left behind their homes and their customs.
Designer Lydia Lavin said the resurgence began last year with the indigenous-inspired garments worn by politicians, artists and other public figures during Mexico's $40 million festivities.
"We began to see how people were reassessing Indian art," said another designer, Paulina Fosado. "Before, if you were to put something indigenous on, they would ask you 'Why would you wear that?' Now it's in style."
In their most recent show, Fosado and her twin sister Malinali Fosado unveiled a peach-colored cocktail dress with pink and orange floral embroidery, sleeves made of silk chiffon and a neckline plunging to just above the navel. Another model wore a puffy violet dress and a shawl with beaded fringe that had been sewn into the piece.
Some dresses dipped down to the small of the back, while other pieces were hand-woven with cotton and wool thread to form geometrical patterns of birds, leaves and flowers. Paulina Fosado said she and her sister balanced the use of heavy textiles with lighter, softer fabrics to create "dresses with a lot of movement."
The Fosados' goal is to turn the clothing into an internationally recognized symbol of Mexican identity, like what the kimono is to Japan or the sari is to India.
Ana Paula Fuentes, director of the Oaxaca Textile Museum, says many aspiring designers have stopped by her institution offering to work as volunteers to learn how to make the traditional clothing.
She said for centuries, the technique was passed down among indigenous women in southern Mexico and Central America, where since childhood they learned skills such as using the backstrap loom, in which weavers fasten panels to their waists and hand-spin naturally colored cotton threads between fibers.
Rural Mexico began to change in the 1950s, however, and agricultural production dropped in the fields at the same time that highways were built to connect once isolated towns to main cities.
Instead of producing the clothing for everyday use, artisans began to showcase their work at local fairs and sell them to tourists. Some stopped teaching their children how to make textiles, and many stopped wearing the traditional clothing to avoid being looked down upon after leaving their towns.
In many places, only one family or a person in a town remembers how to weave the huipil, Fuentes said.
"Many weavers never wanted to share this knowledge," she said. "They passed away taking it to the afterlife."
Now, the craft behind the clothing has become a precious commodity as contemporary designers liberally use the garments in their creations, often cutting the original pieces or sewing in silk to make the thick indigenous clothes more wearable and form-fitting.
"We can't design before having the textile," Fosado said. "We are the ones who adapt to them."
Fuentes says some designers shun altering the Indian clothes and argue that some of the designs should remain intellectual property of the towns they come from.
Ana Echeverri, popular culture expert at the National Council for Culture and Arts, said modern designs should still be woven with the backstrap technique.
"What we don't want is for this to become a cultural betrayal in attempting to innovate the design," she said. "It shouldn't be merely aesthetics. Designers should put everything in context."
In the hip neighborhood of La Condesa, designer Carmen Rion showcases blouses, dresses and shawls that are completely woven and left nearly unaltered. Rion said she never cuts the woven cotton fabric out of respect for the shape of the original Indian designs, which are crafted by 40 artisans from the southern state of Chiapas.
"I see it as the most important work there is to rescue in Mexico," she said.
Of contemporary designers, Rion said, "very few have a solid concept." Most are completely altering the textiles and cutting old pieces using imported fabrics, she said, and some are copying native designs from artisans and sending them to be produced in China.
Lavin, a 58-year-old designer based in Mexico City, said she deals with artisans from five different towns. In the 1980s, Lavin traveled throughout southern Mexico documenting and rescuing the textile tradition.
Some of the designs in her latest collection look as if Frida Kahlo, the famed surrealist painter, had stepped onto the runway, with models sporting white cotton lace tops and bright, indigenous-inspired jewelry with hair worn high.
In her latest collection, Lavin showcases purple and green dresses made mostly of silk but infused with pieces from traditional shawls and other textiles.
Lavin said her immersion in indigenous fashion took off during the bicentennial celebrations, when she was commissioned to design dresses for about a dozen wives of diplomats and incorporated traditional elements. Even after the fiesta, she said, the fashion movement is gaining more strength.
"Many of my clients are young people," she said. "I was surprised that many young people feel so connected to Mexico."
Marina Palacios, a 49-year-old weaver of San Pedro Iztatlan, Oaxaca, recently traveled to Mexico City to catch the Fosado twins' fashion show as part of a conference teaching artisans how to better sell their artwork. While in the capital, she tried to sell some of the dresses she has been making since she was 10.
Palacios said she often spends a week on a dress she sells for $37. The Fosado dresses, on the other hand, range from $740 to $1,100.
"Sometimes it's not sold for its fair price," she said. "People don't want to do it anymore. It doesn't pay the bills."
Palacios' outlook brightened while watching the Fosado dresses on the runway. She and her weaving partner clapped and smiled as the designs passed before her.
"It's very pretty," she said. "If only it would give jobs to the Indians."