Listen to this article
In honour of Día de Muertos this year, I wanted to discuss an area of aromatic mourning that is fairly unique to the Mexican tradition.
There are many ways people mark time when it comes to death, but one of the most elegant is the rebozo de luto or the perfumed mourning shawls. These simple garments convey culture and identity as well as give physical space for grief and mourning. More than the shawl itself, the scent impregnated in its fibres is what makes these items so incredibly memorable and comforting.
Sadly, like many forms of traditional dress around the world, the mourning shawls of Mexico may one day become a thing of the past.
The Incredible Rebozo
The rebozo is both a fashionable and functional garment worn chiefly by women in Mexico and Guatemala. This traditional shawl is deployed as a warming layer or to keep the sun off one’s skin.
Many a babe-in-arms has also been swaddled or carried in one. Midwives in the UK have even adopted the age-old Mexican tradition of wrapping the post-delivery belly with a rebozo for support and compression. With a few knots and twists, it can be used as a bag. It seems there is nothing these shawls can’t do.
It’s easy to think that these versatile garments are only for practical purposes. Yet, they can also be highly fashionable and made out of delicate fabrics with intricate beadwork, embroidery or feathers.
They can serve as an individualistic fashion accessory or as a statement of culture. One can project their national identity through the rebozo or the identity of a particular region or community. Above all, the rebozo is a garment deeply tied to Mexican femininity.
Unlike the everyday and fashion shawls, the rebozo de luto was only for periods of mourning. It was also not a universal garment as Mexico is diverse, and the scented mourning shawl has always been most popular in the Central Region. These perfumed rebozos identified a woman as being in mourning and provided olfactory comfort to her through their fragrance.
The rebozo de luto can be distinguished visually from its sisters by its dark colour and relative lack of adornment. Though fringe is common and some modern shawls will have the loved one’s name woven into the piece.
Traditionally one would start wearing the mourning shawl shortly after the death of a loved one. Women close with the deceased could wear them, but it was only expected by first-degree relatives (wife, mother, daughter).
When new, the rebozo de luto has a powerful fragrance, a mix of florals and herbs, a slightly old-fashioned medical scent. The thought that always comes to mind is, “this is what an 18th-century apothecary must have smelled like”. It’s not unpleasant, though, and I find it very comforting. I understand why someone would want to wrap themselves in this odour.
The scent also distinguished the female head mourners and served as olfactive communication. If you could smell the shawl from across the room, that probably means this person is early in their mourning and should be treated accordingly.
In the 19th century, the rebozo de luto would be worn throughout mourning, the length of which varied according to who died and the mourner’s preference. Some women never took them off and used them as an emblem of their permanent widowhood following the death of their husbands. However, a year seemed to be a standard for the death of a spouse. Throughout that time, the scent would slowly fade but never really go away.
Anyone that has grieved will appreciate the olfactory metaphor at play. Grief never really goes away; it just changes over time. It develops as a fragrance does. It hangs in the air. It is there but unseen.
Historically, the shawls were also deployed as burial shrouds, particularly for widows, and could be used as funeral decoration to cover mirrors or as swags around a memorial. Even in mourning, the rebozo managed to be multifunctional.
Today if the rebozo de luto is worn, it will probably only be for the funeral or the first few days following a death.
An Odiferous Start
This tradition of scenting rebozos goes back to at least the 18th-century in Mexico, though the exact origin and purpose of the fragranced garments are unclear. The scent may not have been added as part of the mourning ritual in the beginning. Traditional dyes, particularly dark colours, present two challenges, issues with colour fastness (i.e. bleeding) and lingering malodour in the fibres.
Some of the aromatic ingredients deployed in the rebozo de luto, particularly cascalote, were also colour fasteners. It is possible that colour fasteners that happened to be aromatic started to be used to improve the quality of dark coloured garments. Those additives improved odour as well, which then led to intentionally scenting the fabric. Firstly to neutralise malodour and then later to add value to the garment. Customers buying dark shawls for mourning purposes may have begun associating the dying process’s fragrance with mourning itself.
Of course, this is a hypothesis, but it is plausible and in line with the history of fragrance in the leather trade and dye works in other places. This would also explain the unique perfuming practices with these shawls. As it exists today, aromatics are added three times, first with the dye to raw fibres, then during the washing phase, and finally, the garment is impregnated a third time after weaving.
Most scented fabrics have perfume applied after dying and weaving only. The rebozo is scented throughout the process, indicating the fragrance’s history as an odour neutraliser and colour fastener. It also ensures that the shawls are redolent with perfume in a truly exceptional way, making them a living piece of textile and perfume history.
Regardless of their origins, by the 19th-century, only rebozos for mourning were sold scented, and the scent was a significant component of the garment’s appeal.
The Scent of Mourning
In the 19th-century, there were multiple rebozo de luto manufacturers; today, there is only one. Their fragrance is a carefully guarded trade secret. Still, we know it contains cascalote (kidneywood pods), rosemary, marigold, Castile roses, sage, orange leaves and peels, lavender seeds, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and anise.
Of the scant record from past producers, cascalote, Castile roses, and cinnamon make several appearances. There probably was an overall fragrance profile for the shawls that the consumer expected, but each producer could have had their unique variation or style.
I also don’t think the above list is definitive. There are other elements I smell; I’m just not sure what they are. It could also be the effect of the fragrance sitting on top of the traditional dye. For instance, some of the dye elements like iron shavings would impact the overall aroma of the garment.
A Tradition in Decline
While the everyday rebozo remains a staple garment and Día de Muertos is more popular than ever, the rebozo de luto isn’t.
The rebozo de luto is primarily used today by older women in rural areas and the city of Tenancingo. The last rebozo de luto manufacturer, the Álvarez Segura family, is located in Tenancingo. They still use their family’s traditional formula and weave on their original loom.
So why did things change for the rebozo de luto? This is probably due to shifting ideas around structured mourning and the role of women. It is important to remember that traditions like the mourning shawls are dynamic, not static. They are a reflection of the needs of the community.
Día de Muertos celebrations, even just 40 years ago, were much more religious and sombre than they are today. Part of that change has been the Catholic church’s receding prevalence, the increased importance of folkways, particularly of indigenous origin, and an increased desire to redefine national identity.
The everyday rebozo and the Day of the Dead have been tied up in Mexican nationalism and the Chicano Movement in the US. Both have been used to recalibrate identity away from self-hatred and internalised colonisation. Instead, they are used to express cultural pride in pre-colonial identity or a re-narrating of colonial trauma as a post-colonial new identity, La Raza cósmica.
The rebozo de luto is about personal grief and feminine space that is not easily adapted to these changing perspectives on collective identity. The mourning shawls suffer by being perceived both as provincial but also rather Eurocentric. They seem to embrace the dour sadness of colonial mourning, not the celebration of post-colonial rebirth.
The Soldaderas (female fighters) of the Mexican Revolution have the status of near-mythic valkyries of Mexican identity. Their signature double crossbody bandoliers are a familiar addition to Catrina costumes. While rebozos are often included in those costumes, they are most often the bright, colourful ones and not the scented mourning shawls one would have expected from a half-century before.
Perhaps the rebozo de luto is an article of the past and doesn’t have a place in modern Mexico. But I can see a possible application that preserves its identity as a feminine garment of mourning and gives it new meaning and importance in the national discourse.
The Rebozo de Luto as Protest
Women in Mexico are facing unprecedented levels of femicide. 10.2 women and girls were murdered in Mexico every day in 2020, up 10% from the year before. There are many reasons why this is happening, too many to cover in this post, but this is not something Mexican women are taking lying down.
Several feminist and human rights organisations are fighting the scourge of gender-based violence gripping the country. Traditional symbols are often adopted in their protests. Catrina makeup takes on new meaning when done protesting the lack of police concern for murdered women. Grave crosses are carried during vigils painted Barbie pink. The high heels girls first get on their quinceañera are lined up in city squares painted red to symbolise the thousands of women murdered.
I think the rebozo de luto would make a powerful symbol of collective national mourning for a generation being lost to violence. It would occupy visual and olfactory space as it always has but take on new meanings of resistance and collective solidarity.
Regardless of its future role, the rebozo de luto is a fascinating tradition and worthy of a place of honour in Mexico’s rich olfactory culture.