The Art of Now

06.16.14

Shining a Spotlight on Mexico’s Iconic Textile—the Rebozo

The rebozo, a Mexican shawl of indigenous origins, has helped shape the country’s culture for many decades. A new exhibit in London aims to bring it back to the world’s attention.
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LONDON — Zigzagging pins pierce the surface of a fragile, silk rebozo, the rust bleeding into the worn material like the blood that seeps metaphorically from a jagged red stripe through the soft white wool of another one of the iconic Mexican shawls currently on display at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London.

The wool design by Maddalena Forcella brings to mind the gang warfare and violence that has plagued Mexico. It recalls the images of the country that so often prevail in the American media, with its tales of immigration hardships, drug trafficking, and the plight of migrant workers.

But this is the one exception; for the most part, the new exhibit Made in Mexico: The Rebozo in Art, Culture and Fashion (open through August 21) seeks to present Mexico in a positive light through the exploration of one of its signature textile creations. The melodramatic and romantic hearts of the nation’s people can be heard in the music playing in the background and seen in the bright shawls on display.

“It is our aim to present a positive and inspiring view of Mexican culture and design,” Celia Joicey, head of the Fashion and Textile Museum, said. “But the exhibition also comes at a critical stage in the history of the rebozo garment, at a point when understanding, appreciation, and use of the rebozo needs to increase if Mexico is to preserve the craft skills and traditions. Fortunately, there is support from Mexican fashion designers who are working with traditional weavers in many regions of the country and experimenting with contemporary design.”

The rebozo is the Mexican-style shawl with a striped and embroidered design worn folded over the head or around the torso, which has become synonymous with cultural icons like Frida Kalho and rebel leaders alike.

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Nickolas Muray

There are over 100 on show in the exhibition, including 17th- and 18th-century examples. Among the 50 new works included is a shawl made of used tea bags that resembles a ceremonial cloak. Brown leaves tinge the fragile bags, pieced together like a crocheted blanket, snippets of gold glittering on the soaked paper in this work by the Oaxacan sculptor, Miriam Ladron de Guevara. She made the design as a comment on the comforting nature of wrapping oneself in a rebozo.

De Guevara’s piece is one of several designs created by the artists of Oaxaca, casting a new light on the city, which is one of the most violent in Mexico.

A piece by an American artist based in Oaxaca, Laurie Litowitz, made with the late Gertrude Litowitz, was created out of knitted and crocheted wire, plant matter, photography, plastic, and glass, and it hangs on the wall like a work of art, rather than something that might be worn.

From a branch that twists along the wall like a snake baked to a slither in the sunshine hangs black threads holding silver shells and twigs and an antique rebozo that resembles a Charleston dress. The fringes of the scarf lead to a collection of kitsch photos colored in purple dye. The photos show women wrapped in the shawl, with one depicting a rebozo folded ceremoniously over the head of group in traditional costumes, made of crisp, embroidered cotton.

The exhibition is thorough and imaginative, providing historical context as well as the creative re-workings of the rebozo, which has both inspired recent fashion collections, including one by the French house Hermés, and is still worn as a traditional garment in Mexico today.

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© Fashion and Textile Museum

“The Fashion and Textile Museum conceived the Made In Mexico exhibition to show how a country’s culture and history can be explored through textiles and to engage a contemporary audience, in particular students, with the design, craft skills, and beauty of the rebozo shawl,” Joicey said. “The Museum also has a particular association with Mexico. The Museum’s founder, British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, took inspiration from [Mexico] for her fashion collections and textile designs in the early 1970s. Moreover, the Museum building is by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta and is the only example of the architect’s work in Europe.” 

The shawl, we learn, weaves its way through Mexican life, from its use as a baby carrier to a shroud used to bury the dead. In some states, a rebozo is given instead of a wedding ring.

Photographs by Lourdes Almeida explore the meaning of the style in which a rebozo is worn. Black-and-white images show women with rebozos twisted and wrapped around their heads and torso, draped around the neck, tucked into a belt, or tied like a bandage around the arms. A rebozo worn to cover a woman’s chest means that she is married. One worn over her head and showing her blouse means that she is not married and looking for a husband.

The scarf has also inspired and been embraced in contemporary Mexican fashion designs. Manita Shine has turned one into a necklace. It dangles, twisted in feathery straggles, across the chest like an Apache chief’s finery. Or consider the deconstruction of the rebozo in the form of “The Diamond Breeze Skirt,” cluttered with plastic toys—a kitsch rooster, a silver star spangling from a princess’s stick—in designer Alison Willoughby’s brash celebration of the color-loving country.

Montserrat Messeguer Lavin has created a pleated rebozo skirt and designer Lydia Lavin, a silk dress with an insert of the textile featuring white embroidery. Carmen Rion, a leading Mexican designer, designed a cream ikat cotton rebozo blouse, and Beatriz Russek has created an Ikat cotton rebozo jacket.

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Frida Kahlo with Rebozo, Toni Frissell, 1937, Part of a series published in US Vogue (© The Frissell Collection, Library of Congress)

A placard explains how Mexican artists have embraced indigenous culture, including such textiles, over the years. The Social Realism and Muralist Movements from artists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco worked with indigenous crafts. Artist Frida Kahlo, pictured in several shawls, became one of their symbols.

Although the tradition of working with indigenous crafts in the art movement died down in the 1950s, the show picks it back up, asking a variety of creators to re-work the traditional designs as part of their art.

One artistic embrace of the textile comes with a specific political message. Artist Berenice Torres Almazán’s landscape shawl was designed to cover the world. Made from Japanese paper and thread, her rebozo is a critique of the condition of the planet and human behavior, the artist said.

“The world needs shelter,” reads the note to the work.