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Traditional clothing in Santa Maria de Jesus

Unravelling the traditions of Guatemalan clothing

Guatemala is internationally recognised for the unique style of traditionally crafted fabrics, such as those lovingly produced at Trama Textiles. Despite the influences of globalisation, the indigenous people of Guatemala continue to proudly uphold their tradition for producing and wearing beautiful, colourful and intricately embellished costumes. In recent times, with the reality of racial discrimination being brought to light across the globe, it is with even greater admiration that we must honour those who boldly wear their traditions and culture on their sleeve.

Guatemala is a small country, but it is rich in Mayan cultural diversity and customs that have been passed from generation to generation. Not only are there at least 24 distinct languages spoken in Guatemala, there is also huge diversity in the way that people in different regions design and wear their traditional clothing.

The native dress, called traje, can vary from one village to the next, influenced by the history, folklore, religious beliefs, available resources, wildlife, natural features and climate of that particular region. The colourful designs that are handwoven into the fabric often use symbols that depict local flora, birds and animals, including the quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala. Sometimes god-like creatures are represented to retell stories and legends of the people and culture of the local area. Geometric patterns and designs using diamonds, triangles, zig-zagged lines and curved lines often symbolise features of the landscape such as volcanoes, mountains and rivers. In this way, native costumes are intertwined with the identity of the people from each particular region.

(San Juan de Cotzal: Huipiles in this region usually feature panels of colourful designs set against a white background)

Men in Guatemala are generally more likely than women to adopt Western-style clothing as it is cheaper and often more practical than hand-made garments. However, even children are taught the value of preserving the historic Mayan-style clothing by dressing in traje when attending school and for special occasions. 

Altogether, the trajes – traditional costumes of Guatemala – are made up of the following elements:

Huipil

The traditional indigenous blouse is called a huipil. These blouses are hand woven by women using a back-strap loom, sometimes spending anything from weeks to months on an elaborate design. Each one is unique. Some huipiles have a ‘nahual’ incorporated into the brocaded pattern. According to K’iche Mayan culture, each person has a nahual that protects and watches over them during life, so this figure in the design of the blouse is an important protection symbol.

Corte

Traditional skirts, or cortes, are formed using a long piece of fabric that is wrapped around the waist, then held in place using a belt or sash. The huipil is tucked inside the corte.

Faja

Mayan women wear belts or sashes to hold their cortes in place. Belts are made using a long piece of cloth which is also often decorated with intricate designs.

Tzute

This is an important piece of the costume for indigenous women in Guatemala. It is a piece of cloth that is often used for multiple purposes, including holding and carrying a baby on a woman’s back, for covering food baskets carried on the head, to cover the head and shoulders when entering a church, or as a decorative headpiece.

Racial prejudice also exists in Guatemala, with indigenous communities subject to intolerance, discrimination and even, at times, violence. It is more important than ever that we resist the urge to distance ourselves from that which strikes us as unfamiliar, and instead open ourselves up to the treasures and intricacies of culture in its many different costumes.   

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