Highland Fashion 2010 - 2012
An exploration of traditional dress of indigenous Maya people in Guatemala, and the influences of socioeconomics and fashion trends on traditional dress.
The Maya of Guatemala continue to wear traditional dress, known as the traje tipico. Most often, women carry on the tradition, but in some villages and towns men also continue to wear traje. Each community has their own distinctive colors, style of embroidery, and style of backstrap woven fabrics. Maya people from other communities can often recognize where another Maya person is from by their dress.
The traje is almost entirely crafted by women, but in some communities, men also contribute to designs and clothing. In an extremely labor intensive process, the fabrics for the clothing are created with a backstrap loom. In the most valued and valuable traditional dress, embroidery is created by hand. Embroidery is applied to the women's blouse, called the huipil most extensively, and more minimally to the corte fabric - the fabric used to create a wrapped skirt. This skirt is held together by a lavishly decorated woven belt. In communities such as Santiago Atitlán and Todos Santos Cuchumatan where men dress in the traje, calzoncillos (pants) are often emrboidered, as well as camisas (shirts), and occasionally a wool jacket will have embroidery as well.
Naively, I embarked on this project thinking of the traditional dress as a somewhat static mode of fashion. I quickly learned how the influences of fashion trends and economics continue to inform traditional dress.
In cities and towns, the traje is a symbol of prosperity as well as tradition. To create this labor intensive clothing, you must have the luxury of time and access to materials. The more time you have, the more elaborate your dress can be, and the more time you have, the less you have to work to survive.
The traje can function as a sort of life insurance for married women. Should their husbands die, they can sell off their wardrobe for extra money if needed.
As tourists value certain designs and colors, they can influence the fashion of a village for decades. In one village, Santa Catarina Palopo, the village's traditional dress color palette was reds, white, and yellows. In the 70s, a tourist paid a Mayan women $100 for a set of traje to be made for her in blues and purples, and the village fashion changed entirely because of this inflation of value for the colors blue and purple.
In some more remote villages, wearing the traje isn't always a sign of wealth, as these villages don't have ready access to the secondhand markets of the towns and cities. In more far removed villages, the lack of outside influences shapes fashion trends - women innovate their designs over time, riffing on each others' patterns and embroidery, developing their own unique visual language for their village.
As with any fashion, younger generations develop their own ways of wearing the traje. Older women often wear traditional headdresses, scarves, and headbands, while most young women see this as an old women's fashion, and don't adopt the accessory.
Surplus secondhand clothing shipped in from the US is by far cheaper to purchase, and so many Mayan people shop the markets for this inexpensive dress. Often, women wear their corte (skirts) with contemporary western-style blouses and t-shirts. There are also more economical mass produced huipils (blouses), often with machine-made embroidery widely available in markets. Many younger Maya women wear western style contemporary clothing day to day, and have full sets of traje worn for special occasions, like a wedding, party, or high school graduation.
I began this project by reaching out to non-profit organizations around Guatemala, who introduced me to women and families around the country. Thank you to Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala, CasaSito, Mayan Families for introducing me to the participants in this project.
I worked with Adopt-a-Village in Guatemala as a videographer and in administration from 2011 - 2012, and was able to return to Guatemala many times and develop relationships with women in Nuevo San Ildefonso and continue photographing their unique style of dress.
Adopt-A-Village is an excellent, ethical organization, but I still question my own ethics in utilizing my access to people in the communities that I worked with. The communities had long standing relationships with the organization, and so they were accustomed to being photographed for various fundraising opportunities. I worked to explain my project, and they had great pride in showing me their handmade work, but I feel its necessary to disclose that I may have had especially privileged access to create these images.
If you feel moved by these photos, I encourage you to consider a donation to assist self-sustainability and education projects underway in these wonderful communities through Adopt-A-Village in Guatemala: http://adoptavillage.com/
All images 35mm, some images shot on expired Kodachrome before the last run of Kodachrome developing in 2010.
systemY systemUS, Galeria Imaginarium, Lodzki Dom Kultury, Lodz, Poland, 2011