Ceremonial huipil, made of cotton. Mayan Traje at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles surveys the changing language of traditional dress from the early 20th century to modern day. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
For thousands of years, Mayan women have woven their own fabrics, and embroidered on top of that to create works of art to wear on holidays and at religious ceremonies. In many ways, this dress has become iconic: what we think of when we think of modern Mayan culture.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to a growing number of Mayans from Guatemala, including local members of a group called Friends of the Ixchel Museum, which is located in Guatemala City. (Ixchel is the Mayan goddess of weaving, among other things.)
So it was they made curator Amy DiPlacido of the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles an offer she couldn't refuse: an exhibition of Mayan traje (clothing), much of it dating back to the early 20th century, from their private collections here in the United States.
It’s not often you get the chance to move in close and stare at wearable art, but you can in San Jose, where the exhibition Mayan Traje: A Tradition in Transitionpresents the clothing on walls and manikins out in the open, not parked behind glass.
This means you can really take in the quality of the weaving and embroidery; the creative choices made, the effort put in. It's a feast for the eyes, for newbies and textile artists alike.
"Really, this show is focusing on pieces never made for the tourist market but very traditional to the indigenous people," DiPlacido said.
She explained there are four parts to the traditional woman's outfit, or traje: the boxy blouse up top called the huipal, the ankle length skirt underneath, the apron, or delantal, worn over that, and a faje, or embroidered belt, that ties it all together.
For centuries, each Mayan village cultivated a distinctive visual tradition, a point of pride and handy visual guide announcing a woman's hometown when she traveled in the region.
But Mayans have acquired smart phones and satellite dishes just like the rest of us, and this exhibition is keen to show how the tradition has adapted to changing modern tastes.
Today, cloth is often purchased instead of woven by backstrap loom. Huipals and delentales now feature computer generated designs, sparkly rhinestones, and even cell phone pockets.
Mayan women also no longer feel constrained to represent their village with their dress. They're free to wear designs of all kinds, and do. That said, there's a keen awareness of how their tradition has been culturally appropriated by non-indigenous designers and even the Guatemalan government, keen to use the art form to promote tourism.
That's despite its historic neglect of indigenous Guatemalans, who make up approximately 40 percent of the population but account for 80 percent of the country’s poor.
The Guatemalan Civil War that raged between 1960 and 1996 disproportionately victimized Mayans, and that's a history you see reflected in the clothing as well. "The political upheaval changed the style of dress," noted DiPlacido, adding something as basic as dyes were made of what was available.
The antique textiles have been through a lot: wear, washing, war. There are items that date to the 1850s, "but past that, you don't usually see them anymore, because they do tend to wear down," DiPlacido said.
The museum has posted explanatory text in English and Spanish, but perhaps it was a bridge too far to add Mam to the mix. Mam is a Mayan language spoken by about half a million people in throughout Central America.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are just a few thousand Mam speakers. You can bet many of them will be making their way to this exhibition in the coming months.
Mayan Traje: A Tradition in Transition runs July 21 - October 13, 2019 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. For more information, click here.
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