Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Huipil of San Antonio Aguas Calientes

Anyone traveling today through the Mayan villages and towns of highland Guatemala and observing the riot of colour expressed in the clothing that women create and wear would find it difficult to believe it was not always so.

A prime example of the profound change that has, in fact, taken place is the huipil worn by women in San Antonio Aguas Calientes. Today the women of San Antonio are noted throughout Guatemala for both their weaving skill, their design sense and their use of colour. However a traveler in 1900 would have noted that their huipil was an exceedingly dull affair. The ground fabric was a natural pale brown handspun and hand woven cotton with narrow warp stripes. Onto this simple background were brocaded a few doubled-faced supplementary weft motifs.

Woman with jug, San Antonio Aguas Calientes. CIRMA, Yas Collection, late 19th Century.
How did this rapid and radical change occur? Margot Blum Schevill believes that one impetus was the fact the San Antonio women increasingly came into contact with women from other villages where the design of the huipil was more complex and colourful. Other researchers point to the influence of needlepoint pattern books to which weavers began to have access. With these graphic aids the weaver could begin to reimagine the design the huipil.

Another important factor must have been increasing availability to commercial threads and to synthetic dyes. Women would travel to the nearby town of Antigua with the vegetables or textiles they had to sell and use part of their profits to buy threads and dyes from local merchants or from traders who came from Guatemala City on market days.

It is also important to note that fashion is not static even in a culture as economically impoverished as the Maya. Especially over the last 50 years the aesthetic expressed in all aspects of the woman’s traje (outfit), including the huipil, has continued to change in almost every village. As in San Antonio these changes extend even to the colour of the ground fabric. In the remote village of Chajul, for example, it had long been white. Today it is often red or blue.

Hupil from San Antonio with velvet trim notably missing, Sam Noble Museum, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK

There is a hint as to the role of fashion in a fine example of a huipil from San Antonio in the collection of The Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma at Norman. If you compare it with a close comparable in the Pitt Rivers’ collection (2012.104.37) you’ll note that the velvet trim that was once applied to the neck and arm openings has been removed. Only a shadow remains. One wonders why the owner decided to remove the trim before disposing of the huipil?

Hupil from San Antonio in the Pitt Rivers Museum (2012.104.37) with velvet trim around neck © Pitt Rivers Museum. 

The answer may have been related to fashion. As far as the owner (or her daughter or granddaughter) was concerned the huipil was no longer in fashion. Thus the trim was removed to be recycled in a new huipil that expressed the weaver’s newly acquired taste and aspirations.

Dai Williams
Independent researcher.

In 2012 Dai Williams generously donated a portion of his collection of Guatemalan textiles to the Pitt Rivers Museum. To look more closely at this specific collection please search for it on the Museum’s online catalogue via the Pitt Rivers Museum website.

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