- The Traje de Tehuana as National Icon:Gender, Ethnicity, and Fashion in Mexico
“Is fashion in fact such a trifling thing? Or is it, as I prefer to think, rather an indication of deeper phenomena—of the energies, possibilities, demands, and joie de vivre of a given society, economy and civilization?” So wrote Fernand Braudel in The Structures of Everyday Life.1
For more than two centuries Mexicans and foreigners alike have extolled the legendary beauty, imposing presence, and magnificent dress of the women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. In 1844, Mathieu de Fossey reported that tehuanas “wear a very particular dress, which is undoubtedly the most elegant of all the Americas. … The first time I saw a group of young women of Tehuantepec in their national dress, I thought they looked divine.”2 Gaetano Moro, an Italian engineer who surveyed the area in the 1840s, declared that the indigenous people of the Isthmus are “incomparably superior to those in other parts of the Republic” and the women, “celebrated … for their good looks,” are “notable for their graceful carriage.”3 French traveler Désiré Charnay characterized them as “marimachos” (mannish women), who “held their heads high, chest erect, walking proudly, challenging [End Page 281] any onlookers, highly seductive despite their mannish style.” Taken aback by the public activity of these women, which often led to questioning of their morals, these male travelers were impressed by their skills at weaving silk and cotton and their unique dress.4
The “traje de tehuana” is a complicated ensemble of beribboned or embroidered blouse and skirt (with lace ruffle or flounce), scarf, gold filigree jewelry, hair braided with ribbons and flowers or both, and lace headdress. By the 1920s, the indigenous dress of the Zapotec women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec had become a symbol of national identity, emblematic of both the diversity and unity of Mexico (see Figure 1).
The history of the traje provides a key to understanding the transformation of gender, ethnic, racial, and class relations in the age of modernization and how those factors mediated consumption and fashion in Mexico. The present study traces three parallel and interrelated lines of inquiry: the varied representations of the tehuana and her emergence as a national icon; the material development of the traje in the context of expanding capitalist consumption and attention to fashion; and the role of one female merchant, Juana Catarina Romero (1837-1915) as an agent of the modernization that took place in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Mexico.
In accord with recent studies focusing on the connections between gender and consumption, this article argues that the celebrated traje was not the primitive vestige of pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations worn by alluring Zapotec matriarchs as imagined by travelers, intellectuals, and artists. Developing and changing along with the expansion of capitalism and consumption on the Isthmus in the late nineteenth century, the traje represented the blending of indigenous Zapotec traditions with modern Western fashion. The tehuana Juana C. Romero was one of the driving forces behind the innovations that transformed the traje into a commodity available for consumption locally and nationally, and her own story parallels that transformation.
After decades of political turmoil between Liberals and Conservatives, peasant uprisings, and foreign invasions, Porfirio Díaz took power in 1876. His 34-year regime (to 1911) brought relative peace to Mexico. Díaz sought to promote capitalist development and to unify Mexicans by forging a secular national identity. Engaged in the production of a new national history that [End Page 282] would reconcile the previously adversarial Spanish and indigenous pasts, Porfirian elites actively encouraged archaeological and historical investigation. They glorified the pre-Columbian indigenous nobility, the “royal Indian,” but not the Indians who comprised over half of Mexico’s population and who suffered extreme exploitation.5 Faced with the growing popularity of social Darwinism, elite Mexicans sought to generate a viable aristocratic national heritage. For them, the exquisitely attired Zapotec tehuanas would provide a suitable example of the grandeur of pre-Columbian civilizations.
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