The Rebozo Made in Mexico, Franz Mayer Museum

The exhibition on the rebozo – the classic Mexican shawl made famous in 20th century culture by artist Frida Kahlo. Nearly 200 pieces between rebozos, painting, photography, fashion and contemporary textile art from the United Kingdom and Mexico, make up the exhibition “The rebozo”.

Made in Mexico explores the key role textiles have played in promoting Mexican culture worldwide from the 17th century to the present day. Rebozos on display include major loans from: the Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City; the Museum of Textiles, Oaxaca; the British Museum and rebozos from private collections that have never been shown in public before.

Contemporary Mexican and UK artists, photographers, fashion and textile designers also present new work created in response to the rebozo and Mexican textiles – including Francisco Toledo, Graciela Iturbide, Carla Fernandez, Zandra Rhodes and Kaffe Fassett.

This is an exhibition that explores the different proposals for rebozos over time in different sections and associates this garment with historical figures of cultural life in Mexico such as the painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954).

The exhibition demonstrates the importance of the textiles of historical and contemporary Mexico. The exhibition brings together works from the Textile Museum of Oaxaca, the Ruth D. Lechuga Collection, the Franz Mayer Museum, as well as works by young student designers from universities in Mexico and the United Kingdom.

The show’s mission not only highlights the beauty and importance of contemporary rebozo, but also seeks a way to secure its future. For its part, the Franz Mayer Museum located in a building designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta (1931-2011), is dedicated to showcasing the advances of contemporary fashion.

“The rebozo. Made in Mexico” explores the resurgence of the artisan skills of today, through an academic exchange program between the Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London and the Design Department of the Ibero-American University to design the rebozos of the 21st century, creations that complement the exhibition.

The rebozo, or shawl, is a symbol of Mexico’s cultural identity. Textile regions throughout the country have designed and woven these rebozos according to local custom. Some are woven on a back strap loom, others on a pedal loom by women and men who learned at the feet of their parents and grandparents.

A rebozo is a long flat garment worn mostly by women in Mexico. It can be worn in various ways, usually folded or wrapped around the head and/or upper body to shade from the sun, provide warmth and as an accessory to an outfit. It is also used to carry babies and large bundles, especially among indigenous women. The origin of the garment is unclear, but most likely derived in the early colonial period, as traditional versions of the garment show indigenous, European and Asian influences.

Traditional rebozos are handwoven from cotton, wool, silk and rayon in various lengths but all have some kind of pattern (usually from the ikat method of dying) and have fringe, which can be finger weaved into complicated designs. The garment is considered to be part of Mexican identity and nearly all Mexican women own at least one. It has been prominently worn by women such as Frida Kahlo, actress María Félix and former Mexican first lady Margarita Zavala and still popular in rural areas of the country. However, its use has diminished in urban areas.

A rebozo is a long straight piece of cloth which looks like a cross between a scarf and a shawl. Like ponchos, huipils and sarapes they are classic Mexican garments made of straight, mostly uncut cloth, but rebozos have their own characteristics. It is classically a woman’s garment, traditionally hand woven, distinguished by complicated finger woven fringes called rapacejos. The wearing of the rebozo is said to make the movement of a woman more graceful. The wearing of a rebozo by many women is a sign of Mexican heritage, and for that reason, sales of the garment can double before Mexican Independence Day on September 16. Because of the nature of the garment, especially the fringes, they should be hand washed. The dye may or may not be colorfast so mild soap should be used.

While all rebozos are rectangular woven cloth with fringes, there is significant variation within these constraints. There are three classes of rebozos. Traditional ones have a design created with the ikat dying technique and come in various set patterns. Regional rebozos are more colorful and their origins can be identified, especially those from Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero. Contemporary rebozos experiment with non-traditional fibres and designs. Sizes vary with lengths varying anywhere from 1.5 to about 3.5 meters long. Most Mexican rebozos are made from cotton, wool, silk or rayon. The type of fibre used is the main factor in determining a price of a piece which can vary from a couple hundred pesos to thousands of pesos, with fine pure silk pieces being the most expensive. The finest silk rebozos can be passed through a wedding ring.

Rebozos have two main functions, that of a garment and that as a carrying aid. As a garment, it can be an indispensable part of the wardrobe of many mestizo and indigenous women, especially those who live in rural areas. As a shawl, it can provide warmth (especially the thicker and wool ones), worn on the head to block the sun as well as for modesty, especially in church. For city and upper-class women who use them, they can be worn inside the home but are most often used as an accessory to an outfit, especially on certain occasions.

As a carrying aid, it can be tied around the head or shoulders most often to carry small children and large bundles, mostly commonly among indigenous women. The rebozo has even figured into Mexican traditional medicine. It has been used as a tourniquet, as support for a woman in later pregnancy, as an aid to a woman in labor, supporting her allowing for rhythmic movements and positioning with aim of making childbirth easier. It can also be used to alleviate headaches by tying it tightly around the head. Other uses for the rebozo have been in indigenous traditional dances and even as a shroud. One modern and innovative way to wear it has been to twist it around the upper body and fastened to make a kind of blouse or top.

Rebozos have so many uses. They carry babies and bundles. They are wrapped like a crown to balance a basket filled with fruit or tamales or flowers. They are folded and put atop the head for sun protection. They protect shoulders from the evening chill. They cover the breast as baby takes nourishment. They are the embodiment of Mexican life.

Some are finished off with elaborate macrame hand-tied fringes that can be as longs as twelve or eighteen inches. Some are plain weave and others are Mexican ikat or jaspe from the Tenancingo in the State of Mexico or Santa Maria del Rio in the State of San Luis Potosi. The one above is hand embroidered from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Fibers vary, too. There is silk, a mix of silk and cotton, rayon or artecel that is called “seda” (silk) here in Mexico, plus wool. The type of material, gauge of the thread and density of weave depends on the climate in each location.

In pre-Columbian times, indigenous people cultivated coyuchi or wild cotton that is a beautiful caramel color, using it to weave garments, including rebozos. In the mountains above Oaxaca in a village called San Pedro Cajonos, they cultivate a wild silk the color of straw from a local worm, spinning it with a drop spindle. Below is the red silk rebozo dyed with cochineal by Moises Martinez, part of Lila Downs‘ collection.

Local dyes were derived from indigo, wild marigold, nuts, mosses, tree bark. They used the caracol purpura snail found along the southern coast of Oaxaca to dye purple and the miniscule cochineal beetle, a parasite that lives on the prickly pear cactus paddle, for an intense, color-fast red. Feathers dyed red with cochineal were often woven into the fibers for embellishments.

It is a completely manual process that takes months to complete. A rarity of the raw materials and the time commitment involved to complete a piece. All these techniques and materials are still used today and are part of the exhibition.

Rebozo colors and patterns vary widely and traditional designs can usually identify where it was made. For example, a tightly woven black and indigo version is identified with the mountains areas of the state of Michoacán. Designs are generally classified as “classic” and “indigenous.” Classic rebozos come in various colors with designs based on the pre Hispanic art of plumaría, or creating images with feathers. Some of these have their fringes knotted to form images of animals and stares. However, almost all are created with the ikat technique. The most famous classic rebozo style is called “de bolitas” whose name comes from little knots of string tied onto groups of threads used in its production. Among indigenous groups designs and colors almost always indicate with group the woman belongs. While most rebozos use more than one color, monochrome versions are called “chalinas.”

Among the regional rebozos there is a great diversity between the technique of the empuntada, such as that of the wound with chaquira, that of fringe of artícela and that of embroidered tips.

In the exhibition, there are 14 rebozos from the 18th and 19th century of the Franz Mayer Museum that were originally part of the Robert Everts Collection (1875-1942), a collection acquired by the museum in 1994, as well as 19 rebozos belonging to the Ruth Collection D. Lettuce from the towns of Moroleón, Tenancingo, Chilapa, Paracho, Santa María del Río and Tangancícuaro.

The State of Oaxaca is well-represented in this exhibit. Many of the rebozos on display are part of the personal collections of Oaxaqueños and its institutions: Remigio Mestas Revilla, Mauricio Cervantes, Lila Downs, Trine Ellitsgaaard, Maddalena Forcella and The Museo Textil de Oaxaca.

A black scented burial rebozo woven in Tenancingo, part of Maurico Cervantes’ collection, displays an ancient Mexican tradition that is at risk of extinction because it is so labor intensive to make. Western fashion is dominating the tastes driven by a young, hip population.

Mexico is the main producer and exporter of rebozos, but some are also produced in Spain and Portugal. Average time to make a traditionally woven rebozo is thirty to sixty days with anywhere fifteen to 200 different steps depending on how complicated the design is and the type of fibre being used. For example, rebozos made of real silk take longer to weave. Those made of rayon have about 3,000 warp threads on average and those made of real silk have about 3,800.

The dying process is done before weaving, with the most common technique being the ikat method, sometimes called “amarrado” (stingy) In the most traditional work, thread is dyed with natural colors, with colors such as black, blue, red, purple and green but synthetic dyes are now often used. The patterns of the garment are determined by a sequence of colors dyed into the thread, with color changes made similar to tie-dying. Groups of threads are tied together tightly at intervals so that the dye cannot enter some areas.

After dying process, the knots are cut off. The weaving begins by cutting the warp threads to the length of the final product. The number of threads determines the width. They are woven on both backstrap looms and European style looms. The groups of warp threads are then placed on the loom in order to work out the design that the body of the cloth will have. After weaving, the last rows of the weft are finger weaved to secure them, which is complicated and meticulous work, often done by women specialized in this. In some areas, after they are finished, rebozos are “smoked” with rosemary branches or are stored with apples or quince in order to make them smell good.

There are a number of locations in Mexico which produce traditional rebozos including, Zamora, Ahuirán, Turícuaro, Angahuan, Santa Cruz, Tocuaro, Zitácuaro, Cuanajo, Arocutín and Tangancícuaro in Michoacán, Moroleón and Uriangato in Guanajuato, the Altos de Chiapas region, Xochistlahuaca in Guerrero, the Sierra Norte de Puebla, San Pedro Cajonos, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Yalalag, and Santa María Tlahuitoltepec in Oaxaca as well as the Cooperativa Textil Artesanal in the city of Oaxaca and Chiautempan, Tlaxcala, However, there are several important locations whose work are featured in important collections such as that of the Rockefeller family. These include Santa María del Río, Tenancingo and La Piedad.

Santa María del Río is a small rural town in the state of San Luis Potosí, containing country homes for the well-to-do in the city of San Luis Potosí. The entrance arch of the town states “Santa María del Río, cuna del rebozo” (Santa María del Río, cradle of the rebozo). Even the local baseball team is named after rebozo weavers, called the “Reboceros.” It is known for its production of finely woven rebozos especially in silk and rayon, with cotton ones made as well. Weaving was introduced to the area shortly after the conquest and gained fame by the 17th century. Silk production was introduced originally in Oaxaca by the Dominicans. Despite prohibitions, Junípero Serra introduced their cultivation into the region in the 18th century, with silk production and weaving becoming widespread by the late 19th century into the 20th. The variety of silk traditionally used in these rebozos is called “catiteo.”

After the Mexican Revolution, the haciendas producing silk were broken up and many weavers turned to rayon and very few are still made with pure silk. Their production is done by families, but only by the women, with a number winning national awards for their work. In Santa María the use of various browns is a distinguishing characteristic of the region. Other common colors are black, blue, red, purple and green along occasional white threads which appear as flecks in the final product. There are a number of traditional color combinations and designs with names such as calabrote, Rosita, rosarito, culebrilla calado and more. Santa Maria hosts a Feria del Rebozo in August and is home to the Escuela de Rebozo (Rebozo School) and a cooperative called the Taller Escuela de Rebocería.

The making of cotton rebozos is important in Tenancingo and an image of the garment appears in the municipality’s seal. Tenancingo’s rebozos come in a wide variety of prices from 400 to 4,000 pesos, depending on the quality of the cotton, the complexity of the design and the thread count. The craft was developed in Tenancingo by the 17th century and reached its peak during the 19th century. The creation of the garment remains important both culturally and economically, with the work here recognized at the national and international levels. One of the town’s most important weavers is Evaristo Borboa.

The mountain areas of Michoacán have been noted for an indigo blue variety of rebozo, known as the Michoacán or Tarasco rebozo. In the 1930s and 1940s, the city of La Piedad, Michoacán became a major producer of rebozos of both natural and synthetic fibres. In 1946 the Unión de Reboceros de La Piedad was formed and in 1958, the Sindicato Único de Reboceros de La Piedad.

Other Collection
In addition to the textiles, the exhibit integrates old and new photographs, paintings, mixed media art work, memorabilia and related folk art.

A reference to Frida Kahlo, a photograph of a rebozo from her personal collection taken at Casa Azul by Pablo Aguinaco. Other iconic images in the exhibition are this Diego Rivera painting, Vendadora de Flores, painted in 1934, and this compelling photograph by Pedro Valtiera taken in Oaxaca, 1974.

Photographer Tom Feher, who lives in Oaxaca with his wife Jo-Ann during the winter months, is represented with photos he took of the Miramar, Oaxaca women’s cooperative for his book, Weaving Cultures, Weaving Lives: A Circle of Women. Oaxaca photographers Antonio Turok and Mari Seder also have pieces in the show.

Hilary Simon‘s Mi Altar Mexicano and a series of watercolors that Christopher Corr painted in 2000, all capturing the rebozo and the women who wear them.

Franz Mayer Museum
The Franz Mayer Museum, located in Mexico City, is one of Mexico’s most recognized museums on decorative arts. It was founded with the private collection of the businessman of the same name, of German origin. It houses the main collection of decorative arts in Mexico and presents temporary exhibitions of design and photography.

The collection allows us to appreciate pieces from different backgrounds, materials and styles from the 16th to the 19th centuries, mainly from Mexico, Europe and the East. The collection consists of pieces of silverware, ceramics, furniture, textiles, sculptures and paintings.

The building currently occupied by the museum is a place full of history. For four centuries it functioned as a hospital institution, standing out as the first hospital in America of the Order of San Juan de Dios.

The cloister, which due to its beauty is one of the attractions of the museum, serves as a framework for temporary exhibitions and through it you can access three rooms set from the viceroyalty: a dining room, a cabinet and a chapel.

In the high cloister is the Library open to the public and where there are also exhibits of the bibliographic collection. It protects more than 14,000 volumes, among which old and rare books, historical documents and 800 editions of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha stand out.

The museum offers guided tours, courses, conferences, concerts, shows, children’s workshops, as well as special activities for its members.