Traditional Dress

Traditional dress is often reserved for formal occasions or festivities. Women dress in colorful embroidered shirts and skirts, and men wear traditional pants and embroidered shirts. Traditional dress varies throughout the country. While it is limited mostly to special occasions, it is common to see traditional dress in rural areas where fashion was designed to be functional for the working population. Women often wear cotton headscarves and shawls with dresses or skirts and tops paired with sandals. Men wear cotton suits or shirts with jeans and a cowboy hat. Traditional footwear for men consists of boots or sandals.

Indigenous Tribal Clothing

Regarding traditional traje, it was assumed that the 1932 Matanza (massacre of indigenous people) led to laws prohibiting wearing the traje. However, based on interviews, it was found that social stigmas, labor intensive work, and availability of cheap American clothes, rather than laws, led people to wear the traje less. Colonialism had a strong influence by associating the trajewith “primitivism” and being “backward.”

The traditional traje of men was a white cotton mantle  and loose pants. Women were typically topless or wore a huipil with embroidery, and a refajo(wrapped skirt shorter than the Mayan corte). Characteristics unique to the Nahua refajo was the overlay , and an embroidery of vines, flowers, scorpions, and birds along the seam.

For women, cost to pay for the hand-woven textile to make a refajo is what led them to stop wearing the traje. Research indicates that the cost for the material was between 300-600 colones ($40-$80) in the ’90s. The cost today must be much higher since El Salvador implemented US dollars as their national currency in 2001 and cost of living has increased. 

Salvadorean weavers have found it difficult to compete on in the global market, especially since Guatemalan indigenous textiles have stronger appeals to tourists. Guatemalan textiles are rich with symbolism that conveys spirituality of the Maya. In comparison, Salvadorean weavers have limited knowledge of the meaning of the symbols created by their ancestors. It is difficult to compete based on ethnic and cultural marketing strategies.

The traditional refajo


San Sebastian, a small town in El Salvador, is known for its production of high quality, colourful, patterned textiles to make clothes, scarves, tablecloths, place mats, blankets, throws, mats, hammocks, purses and handbags among many.

The most interesting fact is that no industrial machines are used to produce them but the traditional Telares or large wooden looms that are powered by human power. Just the way it has been done for over two centuries!

The traditional textiles are distinct for their bright colours that feature in checked or striped patterns. They often feature motifs depicting nature- and flowers and leaves are a common inspiration. Many of these motifs have been lifted from their ancient mayan ancestors and still continue to be seen on textiles today.


Embroidery was widely done by Mestizos or Indigenous women to adorn their trajes, the traditional clothing. For example, the Nahuat Pipil women wore the refajo, a wrap-around skirt featuring embroidery along the seams, with white blouses that they embroidered with flowers or animal shapes. However, for many Indigenous and Mestizos, western-style clothing is more favoured now for everyday life, while trajes are worn during festivals or traditional dancing.

El Salvador’s needlework tradition stretches back thousands of years. The block, created by Martha Viscarra and Vilma Mungius Palacios, features an example of the country’s folk-embroidery on a background of woven El Salvadoran fabric. The theme of the piece is reminiscent of a style of painting, now used on wood, cloth and jewelry begun by Fernando Llort. These designs feature simplified images of rural life painted in bright colours. It features a stylized dove of peace flying above a typical village. Loosely-stitched wool thread, in a variety of vibrant tones, was used to create both the picturesque scene and its multi-coloured border.


There is a strong tradition of folk art, which includes sorpresas (surprises). These, tiny conical ceramic domes reveal detailed clay figurines in village settings when lifted off the bases. Other traditional Salvadoran handicrafts include wicker and wooden furniture, ceramics and pottery such as the blackened pottery of the Lenca people, weavings, masks, and basketry, all made from natural materials.




Past, Present, and Future: Salvadorean Textiles and Clothing

The City of Colorful Textiles: San Sebastian, El Salvador