While many people in Guatemala live in one-room, cement-block houses or wooden shacks with corrugated tin roofs, they spare no expense when it comes to their clothes. Ask a Guatemalan woman to open her closet, and she may take out a number of trajes tÍpicos—traditional outfits valued at hundreds of dollars. 

The typical traje is made up of three main pieces: the huipil, an embroidered blouse; the corte, a wraparound woven skirt piece; and the faja, a belt that wraps around and secures the corte in place. One remarkable thing about the Guatemalan traje is that its design can tell you a lot about the woman wearing it. 

In a small village in the mountains on the outskirts of San Pedro, the older generation of women wears their corte as a uniform. The village of Chamac, home to a small population of housewives, sprawls across both sides of a lazy highway. Margarita, a 60-something-year-old woman who has lived in Chamac her whole life, watched as the arrival of running water and paved highways changed her world. 

The one thing that didn’t change in Margarita’s life was her daily dress. Every day, Margarita wakes up right after dawn and puts on the same flower- and fruit-embroidered huipil she has worn for years. She wears the traditional yellow corte of San Pedro, a nod to her heritage and to her connection to the women around her.

Away from the small town, in the bustling metropolis of Mazatenango, women wear cortes from all over the country. In the market you can expect to see the distinctive T-shaped stripe of Sololá, the indigo dye of Quetzaltenango, or the distinctive geometric patterns from Totonicapán. 

If you hop in the back of a public pick-up truck headed away from the city center and take a road through the jungle to the village of Tierras del Pueblo, you’ll see the distinctive coastal Mazate style. Fourteen-year-old Ana and other females in her family wear traditional cortes only when they go out, like to the weekly church service. Even Ana’s toddling niece wears a tiny corte on special occasions. Since Ana’s family can afford it, she chooses a lime green corte with a corresponding studded lime green t-shirt. 

As the westernization of Ana’s t-shirt shows, fashion in Guatemala is and always has been a system of trends and trendsetters. Many women, especially younger women and those from the higher classes in the cities, have stopped wearing the corte in favor of more Western-style clothing. On any given street in a Guatemalan city, you can see traditional Guatemalan trajes mingled with miniskirts and tennis shoes. 

Women continue to express themselves with clothing, whether by maintaining tradition or by embracing change. For now, it looks like Guatemalan women have chosen to do a little of both. 

 —Lindsay Stevens