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Fashion and power have moved hand-in-hand for thousands of years in what is now Mexico. In Oaxaca, textiles are the lifeblood of a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan community, run mostly through local customs. Indigenous designers have used Oaxacan fashion to work toward collective liberation and colonial resistance for generations.


Slide, 1961. 

Location: Santiago Llano Grande 

Photographer: Frances Bristol

Zapotec women like Doña Isabel Saguilán have woven cloth on horizontal looms like this one for thousands of years. European colonizers brought vertical looms to Oaxaca, but horizontal looms are more portable because weavers can tie them to trees and belts. Weavers also have more control over the spacing of the threads on horizontal looms.


Doña Isabel wears a short-sleeved white blouse and a tiered skirt while working under the shade of a tree. Women often wear outfits like this when traveling between urban and rural areas because huipiles (unisex tunic) may be restricted or attract too many prying eyes.

This photo (right) of textile seller Fidel Diaz Valenciana and his family shows the clothes urban Indigenous people had to wear to appear respectable. Their clothing, emulating Western dress, changes the context of the photo.


Even though Diaz Valenciana sells textiles to tourists every day, his family cannot show who they are through traditional clothes in a photo as important as this. The threat of losing respectability or being equated with the intellectually disabled because of the way they dress is an ever-present danger to Indigenous people.

Slide, 1961

Location: Oaxaca City

Photographer: Frances Bristol

Indigenous people who assimilated were called gente de razón — "people of reason." The Mexican government used this language in documents until the late 1960s to dehumanize Indigenous people and culture. 


That does not mean all is lost. The craft stays alive, even if Diaz Valenciana could not wear the clothing he makes for such a special occasion.

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