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Where tradition meets invention meets flowers in your hair

Frida Kahlo Over the past several years, certain people/influencers have been having their ‘fashion moment’. My favorite (because it goes with my topic) is Frida Kahlo. The now very famous Mexican painter (she of the indigenous clothing, crown of braids and exotic flowers in her hair, the socalled ‘unibrow’, and the on-again/off-again stormy relationship with Mexico’s most famous muralist and sculptor, Diego Rivera), Kahlo’s daily ‘costume’ (and I use the term particularly) of mixed prints and Tehuana-based indigenous traditional clothing has captured the imagination of everyone from Neem Kahn to Givenchy to Lacroix to Karl Lagerfeld. Why is not the issue here.

What is the issue here is where Kahlo’s penchant (which really was a urgent suggestion of her lover and then husband Rivera, who was an ardent supporter of the movement to get rid of all Western European and colonial influences in Mexico which became active after the Mexican Revolution early in the 20th Century) for using indigenous clothing as a political statement (and also gaining the benefit of hiding her body cast and braces from a trolly accident). I’m not going to get into my own interpretation of this (after Rivera and Kahlo divorced, she painted a self-portrait where she had cut off all of her hair and was wearing men’s clothing, a visual ‘thumb in the eye’ for Rivera, I suspect), but Kahlo popularized Mexican indigenous clothing literally everywhere she went. She was even photographed for the cover of Vogue magazine, long-skirted, peasant bloused, standing in front of a giant cactus, with a red rebozo proudly raised above her head like a liberation flag.

However, as an artist herself, she did not have the following that Rivera had (though Edward G. Robinson became the proud owner of 4 of her paintings). She did not even have a solo showing of her work in any sort of gallery or museum in Mexico City until literally just before she died in 1954, being carried in on a stretcher. Her paintings did not really gain interest until the 1980s and 1990s and she is more popular today than she ever was (not the least due to the movie, “Frida” which starred Selma Hayak). If you go to Pinterest, her paintings and photographs are everywhere and last year, when all of her personal effects in La Casa Azul (the house she was born, lived in and died in, in a suburb of Mexico City) were finally opened up, a huge exhibit of her clothing, braces, and painted body casts was put on public display for the first time.

So, where does this bring us to the post’s title?

Well, something else that is having a ‘fashion moment’ is the concept of ‘zero-waste fashion’. One of the things about clothing manufacturing is that it produces a huge amount of waste. Literally up to 20% of all fabrics that are used in the manufacturing process end up in landfills and there is a movement toward trying to design clothing which creates less waste. Now, this might be through changing the shape of pieces of the garment or by using what would ordinarily be waste as other features, such as collars, pockets, gussets and so on. Fashion world discovers zero-waste

Though the fashion industry and designers may feel that they’ve discovered this amazingly new, cutting edge (heh) idea, Frida Kahlo’s clothing (as an example) is a reminder that actually, zero-waste clothing has a very ancient history and is still in use today in many non-western societies.

Traditionally and historically, weaving cloth by hand was an arduous process, requiring the inputs not only of the fiber, but also people who cleaned the fiber, dyed the fiber, prepared it for spinning, the spinners, then the weavers. Cloth was, from a human labor standpoint, hugely expensive (one of the reasons why people who were not of the elites did not have more than one or perhaps two outfits at a time). No one was about to create a garment that would generate a lot of waste. And garments, until the development of what we call a ‘set-in’ sleeve (that is, a piece of fabric that was actually a rather odd trapezoidal shape with a bell-shaped curved sleeve head at the top) and men’s breeches with no crotch gusset, were very simple affairs and consisted of oblongs, strips, and squares which could be turned into a bodice, sleeves and an underarm gusset, or pant legs and a crotch gusset. Large oblongs of fabric could be wrapped around the body to produce a sarong, a lavalava, or a toga. Large oblongs of fabric could be pleated into a belt to produce a kilt or a sari. Other large oblongs of fabric could be pleated into a yoke or stitched together (and embroidered or not) as a control feature to produce the traditional smocks worn by farmers, fishermen, and craftsmen. Another long oblong of fabric can be pleated or gathered into a waistband with an opening at one side and ties to hold it closed (and once you got pregnant, you can just turn the skirt around so that the opening is in the front and you can tie the ties over your tummy). None of these things had any curves in them whatsoever.

Curves are one way to make clothing fit more closely to the various parts of the body, such as the connection between the arm and body. But they are, in terms the amount of fabric that is used and the amount of fabric that once you’ve cut out that curved piece, can not be used, very wasteful indeed.

Huipil in the Making As a demonstration in the next post, I am going to produce, in my own haphazard way, a garment that is as close as I can get to the blouse that Frida Kahlo wore, which is a traditional one from the Tehuana area called a huipil (which is pronounced wee-pill). From the photographs, they look to be either a single oblong with an oval opening for the head or two oblongs with a curved opening for the head which is sewn together at the shoulders. The width appears to be measured by the largest measurement necessary (either the bustline or the waist or the hips). In this photo, we see a young girl actually weaving the fabric for a huipil and wearing one. I obviously won’t be going through the weaveing process. This is, as I will show, as simple a garment as you can possibly make other than winding fabric around your body and because of this, it offers immense opportunities for decoration and ingenuity.

Photos courtesy of: David Amsel and gling glomo

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  1. Shiphrah says:

    You can get a pattern for a huipil from Folkwear – other zero waste garments, too!

  2. Toby Wollin says:

    True – Folkwear is a great source for patterns for traditional garments.

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