Although Mexican clothes nowadays do not differ much from what people wear in Europe and North America, it wasn’t always that way. Traditional Mexican clothes were designed to keep people cool in the heat of the deserts in the north and the jungles in the south.
Traditionally, Mexican women wore clothing which was normally very simple with garnishes of color. The Huipil, a tunic-like dress, and other types of enredos were very typical pre-Columbian garb. Originally, more often than not, these dresses were made mostly from cotton. However, following the Spanish colonization of Mexico, silks and wools started to become more popular as clothing material.
Traditional Mexican women’s clothing regularly includes lots of ornate embroidery, often including images and patterns that have symbolic meaning attached to them. Typically men´s clothing is not as colorful as women´s. In fact, typical pre-Columbian clothing is hard to find today. This is because men often went with little or no clothing, using mainly a sarape in certain areas of Mexico.
When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, one of the first things they did was to clothe men and get them to wear pants and shirts. Spanish conquistadores had an enormous impact on indigenous clothing. What we know today as typical Mexican clothing has much to do with this influence.
One of the more emblematic women’s outfits is the china poblana, or Chinese Pueblan in English. This outfit is known for its white shirt, shawl and wide, colorful dress. What many people are not familiar with is its origin — it uses the word Chinese for a reason.
The history of this type of dress goes back to the 19th century and an Indian slave by the name of Mirra. Mirra was a slave to a Chinese family in present-day Kochi, India. Kidnapped by pirates, she made her way to Mexico, by now a converted and devout Catholic, where she was sold to a Pueblan merchant. Unwilling to give up her traditional clothing, she continued to wear a sari, which would later serve as the inspiration for the dress we know today. Catarina de San Juan, Mirra’s adopted name, would later attain her freedom and spend the remainder of her life in a convent, passing away at the age of 82 in 1688. Today, you can visit her tomb in the Templo de la Compañía in Puebla.
Charro is a term used for someone that comes from Salamanca in Spain. In Mexico, charro is the term that refers to a traditional horseman from Mexico. This name probably originates from a Salamancan horseman who arrived and settled in Mexico. An important part of the charro iconography is the traditional outfit worn by a Mexican cowboy, which most people associate with Mariachi musicians but has its roots in the open areas where horsemanship and brute strength were necessary for survival. The utilitarian origin of men’s clothing was important since their work was often closely tied to agriculture and ranching.
Today there are different classes of charro suits, with the gala outfit being an acceptable substitute for a tuxedo at formal events in Mexico. The elaborate botonería, or silver buttons and accessories, is quite striking. Another important element of the charro outfit is the sombrero. This hat has a very wide brim, providing the wearer with plenty of shade and protecting them from the heat of the sun. In fact, the name sombrero comes from the Spanish word sombra, which means shade. Mexican cowboys or vaqueros adapted the hats that the Spanish brought with them to create the sombrero we know today.
The Mexican sombrero has a chin strap, which was used to hold the hat in place as the charros rode their horses. Traditional Mexican clothing ranges from the simple, yet practical pre-Columbian wraps and embroideries to the internationally influenced china poblana and charro outfits. Traditional Mexican clothing has reflected practicality, comfort, and exquisite craftsmanship. Hopefully, these colorful costumes will continue to have their place in the Mexican wardrobe.