Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



In Approaching Textiles, Varying Viewpoints: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2000


Copyright © 2000 by the author(s).


Traditional costume is an institution embedded in the political, religious, social, and ideological matrix of a society. Costume has three key functions: a) it is a marker of community affiliation and social identity; b) it asserts cultural and individual values; and c) it maintains a distance from the dominant culture, the wearer rejects the dominant cultural values.

As a marker of community affiliation, it provides an outward manifestation of group identity. The costume expresses a particular ethnicity and a specific community locality. The style of the costume is prescribed by the community in forms that are determined by the traditions of the community. It shifts focus from the individual to the community.

An example of how this is evident can be seen in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Their desire for autonomy and self-determination is reflected in their social traditions, including the traditional clothing of the women. Their traditional costume communicates that its wearers hold a certain world view that permeates their way of life, a world view common to other wearers of traditional dress even of different ethnic groups.

When a community with a different world view from that of the national culture feels threatened, it employs strategies for preserving its identity. Costume is one mechanism for maintaining a social distance from the dominant culture by symbolically designating the community's separateness fr9m the outside world. The wearer maintains his or her own cultural values and rejects those of the dominant culture. Costume also emphasizes the separateness and uniqueness of each community, in contrast to neighboring communities.