Traditional Mexican Clothing & the Indigenous Groups That Wear it

Traditional Mexican clothing is a beautiful and unique aspect of the county’s culture. There are probably certain attires that spring to mind when you think of Mexico.

For instance, the costumes worn by mariachi, or the embroidered Mexican dresses that are known as huipiles. However, traditional Mexican attire goes way beyond what you may expect, with various indigenous groups and regions of the country having their own regional attire.

Traditional Mexican Clothing

Yucatecan women in Merida wearing traditional Mexican clothing
Yucatecan women in Merida wearing traditional Mexican clothing

The indigenous cultures of Mexico are widely known and easily identified for the vibrant and colorful clothing that they wear. They often feature beautiful embroidery or intricately woven artistic designs.

Unfortunately, the indigenous people of Mexico and their cultures have not always been respected, protected, and upheld as they should have been. The indigenous population in Mexico has faced relegation, discrimination, and displacement in many forms for centuries.

This is due to the complex history of colonization and cultural exchange in the country. It is something that has sadly affected indigenous populations the world over.

The result? Languages, traditions, and entire cultures slowly disappearing.

Today, many Mexican towns and cities are somewhat westernized. Residents wear similar clothing that you would expect to see in say, the United States or Canada.

So, many indigenous people have opted to avoid the use of their traditional dress and go for westernized clothing instead. They do so to avoid workplace discrimination and other types of violence.

In spite of this, the indigenous people of Mexico are reclaiming their history and roots little by little in many different ways. Some are proudly going back to wearing their traditional clothing in everyday life.

Notable Types of Traditional Mexican Clothing

traditional Mexican clothing

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), there are over 60 different Indigenous groups in Mexico. Each has its own culture, history, and language.

Among these groups, there are approximately 364 linguistic varieties. This list covers only a very small fragment of the enormous variety of cultures across Mexico and the traditional clothing that identifies them, as well as the cultural and historical significance of each carefully crafted garment and ensemble.

Laid out roughly by region, starting with the Tarahumaras in the north and all the way to the Maya in the southern Yucatán Peninsula, the indigenous groups featured on this list represent a small percentage of the wide range of cultures across the country.

They are only a brief glimpse into the vibrancy that characterizes the traditional clothing of the people of Mexico.

The Rarámuri in Chihuahua

The Rarámuri (known more widely as the Tarahumara) are native to the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The Tarahumara people used to inhabit a very large portion of the state of Chihuahua. However, they retreated to the high mountain regions of the now-called Sierra Tarahumara upon the arrival and settlement of Spanish colonizers back in the 16th century.

The Rarámuri have remained loyal to their heritage and culture in a variety of ways, and the display of their traditional clothing is central to this. Traditional Tarahumara clothing is a core element of their heritage and identity.

The process of making the clothing is just as important as the wearing and displaying of it. Rarámuri women traditionally dress in long, brightly colored skirts (known as sipúchaka) and flowy tops (called mapáchaka).

Both garments are sewn by hand. The dresses stand out for their patterns, pleated fabric, and bright colors.

Rarámuri men traditionally wear a type of cloth pant called a wisiburka and a light pleated shirt. They also wear a hand-woven band (or faja) around their waist, which is adorned with bright colors and also functions as a belt.

In recent years, the Rarámuri communities in Chihuahua face threats of displacement and erasure. Wearing traditional clothing has become a form of proud resistance.

For many years, Rarámuri men and women have had to set aside their traditional Mexican clothing in order to find jobs in the big cities. Rarámuri women are specifically challenging this idea today.

They refuse to assimilate and conform to requirements that shun their culture and identity. Instead, they proudly wear Rarámuri dresses at schools and/or at the workplace.

The Huichol People in Western Mexico

The Huichol live mainly along the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in western Mexico. It runs through the states of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango.

Huichol culture has survived since the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the Huichol people uphold a variety of their roots and oldest traditions to this day. Every year, a group of Huichol people make a pilgrimage to the state of San Luis Potosí.

This is thought to be their ancestral homeland and the state where the Huichol first lived thousands of years ago. In San Luis, they perform sacred Peyote ceremonies.

In addition to this sacred ceremony, known and upheld by many, the Huichol remain loyal to their roots in the way that they dress. Their heritage is very proudly reflected in their traditional clothing.

Huichol men traditionally wear long white cotton pants known as huerruri. These are embroidered along the bottom with cross-stitched symbolic designs.

The traditional long open shirt that accompanies the huerruri is known as a kamirra. It is worn with a large heavy wool belt that holds it closed.

The belt usually holds various embroidered pouches (kuihuame), which do not usually hold anything specific within them and are there mostly for decoration purposes. Huichol men are generally seen wearing a hat known as rupurero.

Made out of palm leaves, the rupurero’s traditional look is achieved with the adornments of feathers, flowers, and beads that hang around the edge. Huichol women traditionally wear a white waist-length blouse and a long skirt.

They will often cover their head with a traditional ricuri – a light embroidered cloth. Both the blouse and the skirt are beautifully embroidered by hand.

The Mazahua, the Otomí, and the Nahua in Central Mexico

The central Mexican states of Hidalgo, Querétaro, Michoacán, and the State of Mexico are home to a number of different Indigenous groups with different cultures and traditions. Among these are the Mazahua, the Nahua, and the Otomí.

These three ethnic groups share geographic proximity and certain articles of traditional clothing are similar among them. However, the subtle differences between them set them apart from each other and make them all unique.

Among the garments that stand out from the central region of Mexico is the rebozo. The name“rebozo” comes from the Spanish verb “to cover or envelope oneself”.

Rebozos have been adopted by people around Mexico and around the world since their early usage in pre-Hispanic times. The traditional Mexican rebozo was popularized in western culture.

This is largely because of the appropriation and appreciation of the iconic image of the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Kahlo wore rebozos to highlight and celebrate her Mexican heritage. The image of her wearing her classic magenta rebozo has pretty much been seen in every corner of the world.

The Mazahua

The Mazahua people inhabit a large portion of the central State of Mexico, as well as certain areas of Michoacán and Querétaro. They have held on to their cultural identity through the continuous use of the Mazahua language, as well as through music, dance, and unique artesanías.

The clothing of the Mazahua people is also a crucial piece of their history and culture. Their garments include elements that represent traditional values and cultural beliefs held close by the Mazahua people.

The traditional dress set of the Mazahua women includes a satin and lace pleated skirt known as a chincuete. It also features a white cotton shirt embroidered with floral and geometric designs along the neckline and a traditional rebozo or quechquémitl worn as a cover-up around the shoulders.

When it comes to the widely known rebozo, Mazahua women make use of this versatile piece in a variety of ways. The rebozo can be worn wrapped around the head and upper body to shield from the sun or cold, as well as to carry a baby or large bundle, or simply as a decorative garment.

During colonial times, the use of the rebozo was common among lower and middle-class women. It was made of different materials depending on the economic possibilities of the wearer.

Lower-class women would often wear cotton rebozos. Meanwhile, those who could afford it would opt for silk or higher quality cotton.

The Otomies

The Mexican traditional dress of Otomí women can be compared to that of the Mazahua women. Otomi women are commonly seen wearing the traditional rebozo or quechquémitl around their shoulders.

The quechquémit, like the rebozo, is a garment that has been around since Pre-Columbian times. It generally consists of two rectangular pieces of cloth, hand-woven and sewn together to form a type of triangular shawl/poncho that can be worn around the shoulders.

In Pre-Columbian Mexico, the quechquémitl would be worn exclusively by noble women of higher social classes. It was only adopted and adapted by other groups during colonial times.

This garment is worn by indigenous women of several different ethnic groups of central Mexico in addition to the Mazahua and the Otomies. For instance, the Huastecas, Nahuas, and Totonacas. Although women of all ages wear the quechquémitl from time to time and often on special occasions, it is most commonly seen on older women.

The Nahua

Hand weaving of cotton and wool is a very important craft among the Nahua people. It is a skill that is highly regarded.

In Nahua communities, it is common for both men and women to learn to weave. However, the specific techniques that are learned by each of them are different.

Nahua men will traditionally learn to weave on a European upright loom, while women learn the craft on the native belt loom. The Nahua are known for utilizing fibers of the maguey plant to make certain items of clothing and certain types of carrying sacks. The Nahua men and women are generally seen wearing colorfully embroidered shirts or blouses and manta skirts or pants.

The Rich Textile Culture of Oaxaca: The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs

The southwestern state of Oaxaca is home to more than a couple of different Indigenous groups and is known for its historical textile tradition. Among these groups are the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.

Both of which, make up a large percentage of the Indigenous population of the state of Oaxaca and each with their own specific textile tradition and techniques.

The differences in embroidery, patterns, and textile specificities can tell a keen observer about the type of technology used in the textile process. Certain technologies used are similar in areas that are close in proximity to each other.

This results in many similarities in embroidery and patterns between the traditional Mexican clothing worn by certain indigenous groups. For example, between the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs.

The garments created within Oaxaca differ mostly based on an ideological basis rather than a practical one. The clothing reflects the specific group’s worldview and highly regarded values, from the imagery to the materials used, and this has been the case since pre-Columbian times. 

The Zapotecs in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec

The people who inhabit the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the State of Oaxaca are descendants of the Indigenous Zapotecs of Pre-Columbian Mexico. Many are skilled orfebres (goldsmiths).

Working on gold is a crucial part of the making of clothing in the region. Goldsmithing is a big part of the artesanías produced by the Zapotecs.

Gold adornments are handmade for use on certain articles of clothing or as jewelry. In addition to goldsmithing, the Zapotecs also prioritize weaving and embroidery, as well as the making of hats and bags from palma and belts or shoes from leather.

There is an enormous diversity of traditional Mexican attire within Oaxaca. However, the use of the huipil is a staple in a lot of communities across the state – including the Zapotecs. There are different types of huipiles worn in different communities and no two styles are exactly the same.

The word huipil comes from the Náhuatl “huipili”, which translates roughly to “adorned garment”. The specific imagery embroidered into a huipil can range from geometrical shapes to images of flora or fauna to human shapes.

It all depends on the cultural significance they may have for a specific ethnic group. Generally speaking, huipil wearers own different huipiles for daily casual use and for special occasions.

The huipil will fall to just below the knee, letting a piece of white slip or undershirt peak out. The slip worn under the huipil is part of the ensemble and is usually just as adorned, complementing the huipil with white lace and delicate features.

The Mixtecos in Oaxaca

The Mixtecos (or Mixtecs) inhabit the region of southern Mexico known as La Mixteca. This covers a large portion of the state of Oaxaca and part of the neighboring states of Puebla and Guerrero.

There are more than a couple of different communities of Mixteco people, and they all differ slightly in their dress preferences. Some Mixteco women will wear huipiles and rebozos, while others prefer the use of a typical blouse with a long shirt and undershirt. Mixteco men will often be seen in a white cotton shirt and trousers.

The Tzotzil in Chiapas

The Tzotzil (or Tsotsil) people of the southern state of Chiapas are a Mayan ethnic group. They have close ties to other Mayan peoples in the nearby states of Tabasco, Yucatán, Campeche, and Quintana Roo.

The Maya Tzotzil of central Chiapas are specifically known for the unique blend of pre-Hispanic religious beliefs with Catholicism that has permeated their culture since the clash of the two worlds. This is evident in the unique practices that are carried out in churches in Zinacantan and Chamula.

They are also known for having their own language, and unique customs, and even adhering to a different time zone of their own. Many parts of Chiapas are autonomous and managed by the indigenous people.

The Tzotzil people proudly express their heritage and indigenous identity through their religious ceremonies, their art, and their clothing. The men traditionally dress in large wool ponchos.

Meanwhile, the women dress in long blouses, huipiles, enredos (a type of wrap), and cotton shawls. Tztotzil women in certain municipalities will wear cotton or wool capes, handwoven by girls and women who learn the special craft from a very early age.

The Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula

On a day-to-day basis, the Mayan men of the Yucatán Peninsula typically wear sturdy linen trousers and white cotton or woven guayabera shirt. On special occasions or celebrations, they may wear a traditional long white button-up and white linen wide-bottom pants, as well as a traditional straw hat. The huaraches they wear on their feet are made from quality leather, including straps to hold the ankles tightly and thick, durable soles.

Mayan women in Yucatán generally wear linen or cotton huipiles that are wide and open on both sides. This exposes their arms and gives the illusion of short sleeves.

This huipil is unique for its square neckline or collar that is carefully embroidered by hand in vibrant colors and patterns. Mayan women will often wear long, hand-crafted rosaries around their necks and put their hair up in a style denominated t’uch. They then embellish their hairstyle with colorful ribbons.

In pre-Hispanic times, it was tradition for women to wear the same huipil on the day of their wedding and when they were laid to rest after death. This tradition is still upheld in certain regions and groups.

When you travel to various places in the Yucatan, you will see that a lot of locals prefer to wear their traditional dress. In the boutiques of Izamal, Valladolid, and Merida, you will find gorgeous boutique stores selling modernized versions of traditional clothing for tourists. These make great souvenirs from your trip to Mexico.

Final Thoughts

Have you ever seen traditional Mexican clothing during your travels in Mexico? Which traditions and garments were your favorites?

If you enjoy learning about Mexican culture, you may also enjoy this post on Mexican traditions or this article on Mexican superstitions. Enjoy exploring Mexico!

Buen Viaje! xo

Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer based in Merida, Mexico and the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Travel Secrets. She has over seven years worth of experience in working in travel media and has travelled to 57 countries, mostly solo. Throughout her career, Melissa has produced written content for several high-profile publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, the Huffington Post, Rough Guides, and Matador Network.

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