More than clothes, stories

Mis à jour : 6 juin 2019

Praise and reflections around textiles, from Mexico to Bolivia.


San Pedro Atitlán, Guatemala. October 2017. A young woman with long black silky hair tied in a bun behind her head, smiles proudly while showing her skirt. It's a long strip of navy-blue fabric that is occasionally crossed by a line of little spots of colour that follow each other: "Look. It's my birthday present. It costs 1000 Quetzal and they spent days weaving it. "Mille Quetzal is more than 120 euros, it's a fortune for a country where you do not earn much ... Why choose to spend so much money on fabrics when the current market can offer similar ones? - or almost, the difference is obviously notorious when one knows well the traditional fabrics. How can we explain the pride that women have in wearing the same clothes, when we ourselves are trying to differentiate ourselves?

The streets of Latin America. Here and there, women sitting cross-legged, on a chair, a stool, even standing up. Colorful fabrics, colorful threads that intermingle on worn knees. Reasons that accumulate, answer each other, the street swarming with silent fantasy. They embroider ancestral knowledge and under their trained fingers, stories that speak for themselves and that cannot be silenced. Stories that tourists snatch without understanding, and that their own children, more and more often, denigrate. Latin America paradoxes, in this world where time is accelerating, we still embroider all day, the rhythm of human hands, the seasons, stories and traditions ...

"You can know where women come from following how they are dressed," I was told one day. I do not remember where, when, or by who, but I remember those words. And I checked it out. In southern Bolivia, women wear short, colourful skirts with ruffles, a little further north, their skirts are longer, even further north, on the side of La Paz, they go down to the ground. at the feet. In Mexico, the more you go to the South, the longer the skirts are, sometimes ruffled, sometimes a single pan that folds. Sometimes a big belt keeps the skirt up, sometimes there is none. As many skirts as traditions, lengths that say a lot, and most importantly, an immense care given to the outfits that women wear each morning. I observe them, and my eyes are lost in the patterns, colors and textures of the fabrics that make up their outfits. The streets are the shimmering mirrors of the richness of these cultures where clothing is still so important, so neat, so codified too. Here, women's blouses shine with endless embroidery; there, their skirts twirl between the avenues of the market. With my walking shoes and my traveling leggings, I feel very unattractive in the midst of all these women whose dress style is so neat.

One day, girls from San Cristobal de las Casas "disguised me/ dressed me up": they made me put on their traditional clothes and soon I was a güera in a long skirt and pink blouse embroidered with colourful flowers. They laughed when they saw me, handed me a mirror, and wanted to touch my hair that got tangled in the stuff. I felt like an aboriginal princess, but what a discomfort! I wonder how these women can, from the youngest age, walk, run, perform all their daily tasks, with these pan skirts that threaten, it seems, every moment, to fall down. And yet, I see on every street corner, women in these outfits; at the market, in the small shop near my home and even some holding their babies on their backs or in their arms, others carrying flowers or bundles of wood they will sell later.


"And you, do not you wear the traditional clothes of your village anymore? I ask Krystal, one of my friends from the Sierra Mixe (north of Oaxaca, Mexico), as we prepare to go to her village party. She laughs and pouts. "No, I do not like being in a dress. It's only for special occasions, and again, I do not like it. I think that if there was a traditional outfit of my village, I would wear it and be proud of it, but where I live it does not exist anymore ...

I corrected my thought the moment after just as I rebelled against the skirts and blouses that my mother forced me to wear, I would certainly refuse to put on the traditional clothes if there were any! Influence of Western media and models, standardization ... all laugh at seeing me look for an embroidered huipil at the market when they themselves do not wear them anymore. I think about laughing at the effect that the sight of a Breton in traditional dress would have on me!

We too have lost, for a long time, these traditions ...


More than clothes, they are stories, though. No motive, no form is random. "You see, the diamonds here are the reasons for the Zapotec tombs," one day a craftsman from Mitla, a village in Oaxaca known for its traditional weaving, told me. "The points are corn, and the lines are death.” Before my eyes, the fabrics were adorned with fascinating stories ... A true cosmogony, invisible to the one who does not have the codes to read it, is revealed suddenly. I then learned that there are as many stories as people, fabrics as languages, colours as traditions ... There are colours for ceremonies, sometimes embroidery, circumstances, and beware of the one who would be mistaken! In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the south of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, when Lent is celebrated, women wear the colours of the night: from black to navy blue, passing by the purple, the famous patterns of their blouses adorn themselves with dark colours while their heavy ruffled skirts whisper when they wrinkle in their path.


Santiago Atitlan,Guatemala, place du marché. ©ClémenceDemay, 2017.

Men, too, have their codes. If one evening, they wear only simple white shirts, it is not uncommon to see them put on their own suit with shimmering colours, sometimes even brighter than women's, depending on the type of ceremony. Poncho, guayabera, facing embroidered skirts and blouses, the distribution of uses and outfits is strictly defined, like that of work and society. Women weave by hand and embroider, men use pedal-powered weaving machines. And there is no question of trading! Each has its place and if the boundaries of this delimitation sometimes tend to be lowered - by the mechanization that makes weaving accessible to both men and women, but also to the imperatives of marketing in competition with counterfeits and the great distribution, the relative emancipation of women within households and the emergence of new professions - yet this ancestral organization integrates this process of creation into a more global vision of society, in a temporality that itself is clean.


Because, what fascinates us in Latin America is this temporality: in one word, slowness. Slow process; the slowness of craftsmanship. The time it takes to weave, the time it takes to embroider. Preparing a wedding outfit months before, if not years. It is of another temporality that it is a question of another conception of the division of tasks and seasons. From another vision of the infinite and the limit of the present and the now, while being deeply rooted and dependent on it. Under the hands of women and men - callous, wounded, sometimes rough, often -, clothes are born, alchemy of past time, future and present. In a present that can no longer be present, more than clothes, these are stories that are born. This is the story not of one person but of many who refuse the arbitrary unification of hundreds of years of history. The story of a cosmovision to which an organization of society responds; the history of landscapes, animals, traditions, which are still proudly displayed, colorful witnesses of what cannot possibly be told with words that disappear, and books that were burned. The memory, alive, in short, to which one pays homage, and which persists. How can one understand, then, that one cannot imitate such knowledge? How to understand then, that when some reproduce for the large-scale distribution of the ancestral motives of the blouses of there, one assimilates two things which cannot be compared, two universes, two time-spaces which are alike only because they are worn? How to understand, finally, that behind this trivial fact of a momentary fashion, a parade, a creator in search of originality, one deprives a whole civilization of its identity?




Eduardo Galeano once wrote that "when one burns his paper houses, memory finds refuge in the mouths that sing the glories of men and gods, songs that from men to men remain, and in bodies that dance to sound. hollow trunks, turtle shells and sugar cane flutes "[1].

And if textiles were also, in their way, this silent and colourful song, made of paradoxes and mutations, stories of history woven of stories, like the streets of Latin America?


By Clémence Demay





Traduction by Olivia Cameron, during her internship for Uekani


[1] « Cuando le queman sus casitas de papel, la memoria encuentra refugio en las bocas que cantan las glorias de los hombres y los dioses, cantares que de gente en gente quedan, y en los cuerpos que danzan al son de los troncos huecos, los caparazones de tortuga y las flautas de caña. », Galeano, Eduardo, Memoria del fuego, Tomo 1 Los Nacimientos, siglo veintiuno editores, sa Cerro del Agua, México, D.F.



Handmade with love in México