Marco Ugarte, Associated Press
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."
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