Woman's Huipil, Guatemala

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Clothing and Dress


Woman's Huipil, Guatemala


ca. 1965, mid 20th century


27 inches from neckline to hem (68.5 cm); 40 inches across bust/chest (102 cm); 41 12/ inches at waist (106 cm); 42 1/2 inches diameter at hem  (108 cm)

Across the back measures 25 1/2 inches from sleeve hem to sleeve hem. This is one piece of fabric. (65 cm)


Huipils are precolonial garments used by indigenous people within the Mayan region in Central America. The Maya civilization developed thousands of years ago, with descendants living today in an area that incorporates southeast Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western sections of Honduras and El Salvador. The tunic-like garment has evolved over time in both shape and design, but its core structure is the same one Mayans created for themselves. Designs and motifs differ among the diverse peoples within the Mayan region.

This huipil is made from nine different fabrics, all cotton, which include plain, brocade and twill weaves and ikat or resist-dyeing techniques. Two of the fabrics appear to share an ikat warp or weft, with the filling yarns creating slightly different designs. Some of the fabrics were probably woven on a backstrap loom, limiting the size of panels used in construction. The number of fabrics reflects a sophisticated and careful use of materials. These fabric patterns are unique and rich in symbolism. No extra embellishments are needed. The garment is sewn by machine with cotton thread.

In Guatemala, traditional construction of huipils used two or three panels of fabric because the fabric is usually woven on a backstrap loom, which limits the width. The earliest version is the two-panel design (Odland, 2006). The garment consisted of two front panels and two at the back, seamed in the center and along each side, with a slit for the neckline and armscye. Three-panel huipils have a central and two side panels on the front, decorated across the top. The three panels on the back can be without decorations (Odland, 2006). Both designs are representations of different indigenous groups within Guatemala. This huipil is a variation with two panels used to form the front and back bottom sections of the garment, and additional fabrics used to create the upper yokes. The pockets and ties also point to a contemporary adaptation of traditional dress and suggest the use of repurposed fabrics from other garments. (Gordon, 2011; Endangered Threads Documentaries, 2007)

The human figures woven into the back fabric of this garment allow for an approximation of its geographical location, as B.K. de Arathoon (2005) mentions that they generally represent Chac, the rain god, and are typical of garments found in Panajachel, located in the southwest highlands of Guatemala. The town is on the northeast shore of Lake Atitlan, and was a popular center for tourists in the 1960s before the Guatemalan Civil War. Photographs of colorful huipil for sale at outdoor markets attest to the town’s continued success as a tourist center in the 21st century.

The green fabric shows repetitive patterns. The first one is made of zig-zag lines that represent snakes. One of the figures is the tree of life, which represents the ceiba, Mayan sacred tree (Liano, 2014). The flower in the center panel of the huipil represents nature and the balance of nature with humans. 

Colonization brought new trade and materials to Central America. Spaniards brought with them a new fiber, silk, and a new weaving tool, the floor loom (Odland, 2006). Mayans traditionally chose maguey, a member of the Agave genus with fibrous leaves that were harvested for making thread and weaving yarns, as well as cotton, and wool to weave fabric. With the introduction of new materials and means of production, women continued weaving with their traditional backstrap looms while the men used the floor loom. This relationship with production meant more textiles could be created to be sold in European markets. Colonizers forced Mayans to produce new garments, but they never received any payment for their products (Sandoval, 2009).

Huipils are a look into the past, and a way to see changes in ethnic costume. Women weave, embroider and assemble the garments to be to be sold in the tourist markets, worn by non-indigenous people, far from the place of creation. Regional designs in different towns have evolved with the introduction of new techniques and designs, influenced by foreign embroidery catalogs (Endangered Threads Documentaries, 2007). Design elements have been changed to appeal to these groups. Traditional family clothing is sold for income, to become a collection object for museums and/or academic purposes, and private collections (Endangered Threads Documentaries, 2007). Not all family members can don traditional clothes, as the weaving and assembly of the full traje takes time and represents money. For contemporary times families dress their kids in western clothes bought in thrift stores or Americanas (Endangered Threads Documentaries, 2007).

In 2016 Mayan women gathered in a massive march against the appropriation of their identities happening at a national and international level (Abbot, 2016). The major criticism was directed at Marias Bags, which misused sacred symbols on their bags and sold them as a high-end product, without recognition of the sacred quality of their decorations. Another misunderstanding happened in 2011, when Miss Guatemala donned a ceremonial garment, created by designer Giovanni Guzmán, during the segment celebrating the contestant’s national costume. The piece created a feeling of cultural violence, as the garment was presented out of context, and the full traje represents a sacred moment within their religious views. It is important to highlight the disassociation between the non-indigenous and indigenous persons within Guatemala. The misinterpretations regarding traditional costumes perhaps stem from a lack of information or efforts to hide their indigenous past.


Abbott, Jeff (2016). Indigenous Weavers in Guatemala Mobilize to Defend Their Craft and Cultural Rights (n.d.). Retrieved from https://towardfreedom.org/story/archives/americas/indigenous-weavers-in-guatemala-mobilize-to-defend-their-craft-and-cultural-rights/

Chacón, D. E. (2006). Análisis Y Descripción De Textiles Mayas De La Colección "Olga Alejos de Mirón". Guatemala: Universidad del Itsmo.

de Arathoon, B. K. (2005). Huellas Prehispánicas en el símbolo de los Tejdos Mayas de Guatemala. Guatemala: Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena.

de Arathoon, B. K., & Inés, J. P. (2016). Cofradía: Textura y color = Cofradía: Texture and color. Guatemala, Guatemala: Museo Ixchel del Traje Indígena.

Endangered Threads Documentaries (Producer). (2007). Century of Color: Maya Weaving & Textiles [Motion Picture].

Gordon, B. (2011). Textiles, The Whole Story. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Lechuga, R. (2000). Mirando los textiles Oaxaqueños. Artes De México, (35), 10-23.

Liano, D. (2014). Tejidos que Hablan. Milano: Università Cattolica di Milano.

Morris Jr, W. F. (1998). Simbolismo de un huipil ceremonial. Artes de México (19), 64-73.

Odland, J. C. (2006, April 17). Fashioning Tradition: Maya Huipiles in the Field Museum Collections. Fieldiana (38), 1-67.

Sandoval, Martha. (2009) El huipil percortesiano y novohispanico: transmutaciones simbólicas y estilísticas de una prenda indígena. Proceding of Congreso Internacional Imagen Apariencia. Noviembre 19, 2008 - noviembre 21, 2008.

Toc, Henry. (2007) Tradición y cambio en la identidad y cultura del tejido maya k’icheé. [Unpublished masters tesis] Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala.


Donor: URI Purchase


URI 2008.99.01


Mariela Aguero Barrantes


The lower section on both front and back is a double ikat on vertical blue and green stripes, a complicated dyeing process requiring technical skill to achieve. Care was used in aligning the horizontal design over the seaming around the body. The garment has no shoulder seams; the short sleeves are cut in one piece with the front and back yokes. The upper back, including the back of the arms, is made from an ikat plain weave fabric that contains designs resembling human figures. The front of each shoulder and arm is made of a fabric that combines plain and twill weave vertical stripes with colorful patterns created by the resist dyeing process. The fabric is set so the vertical stripes create a mirror image on each side. Between the two panels over the chest is a square of brocade fabric, possibly older than the others, with a large flower in the center. Above is a small rectangle of plaid fabric with ikat details. Two longs ties have been sewn to the side seams at the waist. A patch pocket on the proper right side is made from the same fabric as the corresponding tie. The other pocket is made with a plain weave of a very similar design, suggesting that the weaver changed the patterns while weaving. The tie on the proper left is altogether a different fabric. Finally, the fabric used to bind the neckline is different from the others and appears to be machine-made. This huipil is contemporary, some fabrics could be mass-produced, and others handwoven (Gordon, 2011).


“Woman's Huipil, Guatemala,” Historic Textile and Costume Collection, accessed July 30, 2021, https://uritextilecollection.omeka.net/items/show/398.

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