Thursday, May 5, 2011

cinco de mayo & traditional mexican dresses

Today is Cinco de Mayo and as an American from Mexican descent I am proud to celebrate my cultural heritage. Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexican Independence Day and surprisingly enough it is not celebrated in Mexico but it is acknowledged in a limited number of Mexican states. If Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s independence day then what is it? Cinco de Mayo has evolved to a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States. It is popularly celebrated amongst Americans from Mexican descent and of course people from other cultures and countries join in the festivities. However, there are historical roots in Cinco de Mayo. In 1861 when Mexico was nearly bankrupt, Mexican President Benito Juarez announced that foreign debt payments would be suspended for 2 years. While Britain and Spain agreed to these terms, France did not and invaded Mexico. Mexico’s fear of being conquered yet again by another foreign nation led it to resist the French army. At the time, France had one of the most powerful armed forces and had not been defeated for almost 50 years. However, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army of 4,000 men who were much less trained and poorly armed defeated the French army of 8,000 men. More than anything this was a symbolic victory of freedom and democracy. People have coined this event as the Mexican David v. Goliath victory.

In celebration of Mexican culture and remembrance of its' traditions today I am wearing one of many traditional dress forms, this one is known as a ‘vestido bordado.’ I have six different dresses of this type which were made by my paternal grandmother in Mexico in the late 1980s and given to my mom as a gift. My mom is just like me. She stores everything she loves out of fear of damaging it. Today is the first time one of these dresses is being worn and though I am excited to wear it I am also being extremely careful not to mistreat it at tonight’s festivities. Disclaimer: yours truly is the taller one in the pictures :) and my friend joined me as well.

There are dozens of these dresses ranging in style, patterns, embroidery, and textiles. Each region, state, and even smaller towns have their own styles and unique textiles. For instance, the popular embroidered flower designs, revealing pre-Hispanic influence, are attributed to the southwestern regions of Mexico. Dresses stitched with curved designs are common to the southern part of Mexico. The stitching of certain animal figures or themes on a traditional Mexican dress goes beyond simply beautifying a dress. It specifically reveals the state and/or indigenous town (if applicable) the dress originates from. In those specific designs there are also stories (good and bad) told and traditions preserved. For example, the stitching of large plumed birds is said to originate from the Valley of Oaxaca. The Valley of Oaxaca is highly frequented by many birds many of which boast large and beautiful feathers. This sounds like a reasonable explanation of why plumed bird stitching is attributed to Oaxaca but it is rumored that plumed birds are used to allude to the “plumed serpent,” a symbol originating in early Mesoamerican religions and representative of knowledge. In early indigenous communities, feathers represented a divine nature or ability to fly to reach the skies. The Valley of Oaxaca has a significantly large indigenous community and in an effort to preserve Mexico’s history the use of large feather animals on dresses is expected. In addition to the symbolism of and preservation of stories via dresses there are other interesting things one can learn from these beautiful dresses. According to my mom, there are dresses designed to show others your marital status. For instance, at traditional parties if you wish to let others know that you are single and ready to mingle then you would wear a white color dress, sleeveless, and off the shoulders. Married woman can wear white too but the dress’ cut is more on the conservative side. Married women tend to wear darker color dresses. Listening to my mom explaining this made me giggle.  I never imagined a traditional dress could do the talking for you.

The practice of this craft is deeply rooted in Mexican culture and traditions. It is estimated to have been around since at least 1400 BCE. Of course, with the introduction of mechanized weaving in 1910, the authentic making of textiles and design of dresses have drastically changed but nonetheless the continued production and/or making of these splendid and meaningful dresses (some being more authentic than others) serve as a reminder of Mexico’s history and cultural richness.

Mexico’s authentic textiles and more importantly the people who still use traditional weaving and embroidery techniques in the creation of traditional Mexican dresses are recognized to be amongst the best in the world. I don’t say this simply because I am of Mexican descent but rather because the galleries and museums established to preserve this craft are proof of it (and respected anthropologists agree as well). Even high-end fashion designers purchase textiles and embroidery and/or stitched-ready patterns directly from the more traditional Mexican communities to incorporate them to their designs (I forgot specific ones but remind me to update this).
Interesting fact: Mesoamerican cultures (early indigenous in Mexico) had a god of weaving.  


  1. gorgeous girls...gorgeous dresses!
    thanks for sharing this warm story about your family tradition..
    I didn't notice any off the shoulder photos!

  2. Hello. I was wondering if you could tell me where you found these dresses? I need to purchase several (about 30) in different sizes.

    I look forward to your reply: