Here's Why Calling the Pre-Hispanic Huipil a 'Kaftan' is Considered Cultural Appropriation

Photo By: Ana Paula Fuentes​​

The huipil (pronounced wee-peel) is a pre-Hispanic garment worn by indigenous women located in Mexico and Central America.

Contrary to what many major fashion corporations have depicted, the huipil is more than just a blouse or a dress, and it is definitely not a kaftan.

Each huipil tells a story and contains symbolism from the indigenous group who made it. In fact, the styles and embroidery also vary from one community to another.

Location: Santa María Cuquila, Oaxaca (Mixtec) | Photo By: Ana Paula Fuentes​​
shop books

While the huipil is typically an every day garment, there are also sacred huipiles which are reserved for ceremonies and decorated more intricately.

Recently in the media, major fashion brands like–––Pippa Holt Kaftans, Zimmerman, and Frances Valentine–––have been called out by consumers for referring to the huipil as a “kaftan” and in certain cases, not giving credit to the origin of the garments and artisans who made them.

Earlier last year, we sat down with social designer, photographer, and cultural guide, Ana Paula Fuentes, who explained why calling the huipil a kaftan is completely disrespectful to the name and origin of the traditional garment.

Ana Paula, who has been living in Oaxaca for 16 years and works closely with artisans on a day-to-day basis, has studied the importance of these pre-Hispanic customs very closely and has a B.A. in textile design and a postgraduate degree in fashion knitwear design.

In addition to having an in-depth knowledge on this topic, Ana Paula worked as the director of the textile museum in Oaxaca from 2006-2012.

Photo: Ana Paula Fuentes in Oaxaca​​

Our Interview with Ana Paula

*This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why is calling the huipil a kaftan considered cultural appropriation?

Ana Paula: It’s the same as if I started selling Japanese kimonos and called them huipiles.

Q: Why is calling the huipil a kaftan disrespectful?

Ana Paula: Calling a huipil “a kaftan” is selfish because it means that companies are more focused on helping customers understand what the garment is instead of recognizing and preserving the centuries old significance.

Q: How does cultural appropriation happen?

Ana Paula: Cultural appropriation happens when you are perpetuating the oppression of the indigenous community.On one hand, you are saying that you are supporting the indigenous community and culture, but you are oppressing them because you are not giving them credit for their traditional garments.

Q: How can brands correct the issue?

Ana Paula: In order to stop the oppression from happening, brands must include information on who made the garment, where the design originates, and the significance of each piece.When brands do not include this information, the companies are taking advantage by using the indigenous’ cultural elements for their own profit and benefit.There are brands out there who don’t necessarily mean to cause harm, but because they lack understanding, the are being disrespectful of a culture that they are not familiar with when they call a huipil  “a kaftan”.

Location: Jalapa de Díaz, Oaxaca (Mazatec) | Photo By; Ana Paula Fuentes​​

Q: Why is it wrong to call a huipil a kaftan?

Ana Paula: Many of the major fashion corporations are selling the exact same huipiles that are made in the Mixtec community of San Juan Colorado in Oaxaca.While the artisans haven’t had to compromise any of their designs to create the huipiles for certain companies, the brand is not actually supporting and promoting Oaxacan textiles and traditions because they are cutting ties with the name and origin of the pre-Hispanic garment.

Q: Where does the word huipil come from?

Ana Paula: The word huipil comes from the Nahuatl language, which translates to “blouse or dress with decorations,” while the word “kaftan” comes from Persia and from Turkey. This is why you can’t call a huipil a kaftan.

Q: Why is the huipil getting so much attention in the media lately?

Ana Paula: It takes seeing Katy Perry dressed in a huipil for people to think it is worthy and fashionable. But it’s been worthy before then, because it’s a garment that has been used by indigenous communities to identify themselves as Triques and Zapotecs, among many others.

Q: Is it okay to purchase a huipil?

Ana Paula: It’s marvelous that people want to buy artisanal handmade textiles that have a story, but we need to understand that if we appropriate these garments and use them by turning our back on the history of this traditional garment, then we are perpetuating this oppression.

Q: Who can and can’t use huipiles?

Ana Paula: We can all use huipiles. The artisans use huipiles from other communities. I’ve worked with various artisans for 15 years and if they want to wear a huipil blouse from another community, they buy it and wear it. Artisans often buy huipiles from other communities because they like the other garments.Buying a huipil isn’t bad. Wearing a huipil isn’t bad. What is harmful is when someone wears a huipil and lowers the cost for the artisan. Or when someone publishes a design and names it a kaftan instead of a huipil.

Lucia, the weaver from the Sanjuaneras Group, in San Juan Colorado works on a huipil with a backstrap loom. | Photo By: Ana Paula Fuentes​​

Q: As consumers how can we stop contributing to this systemic oppression and cultural appropriation?

Ana Paula: The ideal situation would be for consumers to dig deeper before purchasing an item just because it’s fashionable.

We should pause before purchasing an item just because it’s a fashionable “kaftan” from a famous fashion brand.

If you purchase items without asking questions and investigating, you’re perpetuating systemic oppression and colonialism.

You are adding to the problem because you are someone who has privilege and who has money, but you are choosing to buy the item that they call a “kaftan” and not a huipil.

It’s not enough to purchase an item and say “I’m supporting the artisans.”

And sometimes, you might be purchasing it from a company who potentially paid less for the garment than its worth. It’s up to the consumers to educate themselves.

Huipiles from San Juan Colorado |  Photo By: Ana Paula Fuentes​​

Q: How can we get started learning more?

Ana Paula: Read and submerse yourself in the history. Have the discussions that are necessary.We do not need to get into radical thoughts. We just need to understand that racism and colonialism still permeates this day and age.Stop going to extremes by saying that fashion designers are the devil and artisans are angels.*The following questions were submitted by members of our community.

Q: Are the artisans okay with others wearing huipiles?

Ana Paula: Yes, artisans like for consumers and vendors to purchase, wear, and resell the huipiles––only and of course––if consumers and vendors purchase them at a fair price, do not bargain, and wear them with respect. If you upload a photo of a huipil on social media, give credit to the artisan who made it, mention where it comes from, who made it, how it was made, and resell them with respect by also giving credit to the producers and their origin.Name the garment with the correct name. In the case of the huipil, the huipil is not a kaftan.

Q: Where can we purchase huipiles and other textile items from reputable sources?

Ana Paula: I recommend the following places because they pay fairly, are honest, respectable and can ship to the United States:

Rosa Leyva, who is a Chinantec weaver, uses a backstrap loom to create a huipil in Valle Nacional, Oaxaca | Photo By: Ana Paula Fuentes​​

Q: How would you translate the word huipil in English to a non-Latino?

Ana Paula: Traditionally a huipil is an indigenous dress or tunic of Mesoamerica.Known for its straight, simple shape, and intricate patterns. It is usually, but not always, woven on a backstrap loom.Mesoamerica extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.This is a much longer explanation, but if you would like a shorter version, it should always include the words “indigenous dress” or “tunic of Mesoamerica”.

Q: Why is it okay to use the word “dress” and “tunic” paired with huipil and not kaftan or caftan?

Ana Paula: The words “dress” and “tunic” are generic words. “Caftan” is a word that has an origin, specifically a Persian origin. The words “dress” and “tunic” do not have a specific origin. They can apply to any culture.While the words huipil and caftan do specifically belong to a type of culture and they have a specific context associated with them.That’s why it’s important to state that the huipil is a type of dress or tunic.The words dress and tunic serve as a reference for what it is and it is incorrect to use the word caftan or kaftan as a reference when describing the huipil.

Resources and Books

Watch Interview in Spanish

other posts you may love...

About the Author


Mexican-American journalist, former national news producer, and graduate of Boston College and Columbia University School of Journalism. Her mission is to shed more light on the beauty and traditions of Mexican culture. This website is dedicated to her grandmothers, Tita Susana and Tita Lupita, who taught her to be proud of her heritage and to always remember where her ancestors came from.

Book a Free Travel Consultation

Mexico in My Pocket has just launched a new consultation service for anyone looking for some help planning their next Mexico vacation. Our goal is to create a custom itinerary that will give you incredible memories!

schedule your call today!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published


Interested in traveling to Mexico?

Sign up for a travel consultation and we'll help you create a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mexico!

Book Now