Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society  |  November 8, 2020

The Sombrero: An Iconic Symbol of Mexican Culture

by Marella Alves dos Reis

The image of the sombrero as simply being a comically large Mexican wide-brimmed straw hat is one borne from stereotypes, often negative and sometimes harmful. The history behind the sombrero is rich and significant, and it represents an important part of Mexican culture. The sombrero’s name denotes its practicality and functionality - it derives from the Spanish word sombra, meaning ‘shade’(1). It also has a rather long history, as it first came to be worn in the 15th century (2). It was designed for the long days of working outside in the hot Mexican climate, with the “broad-brimmed, high-crowned hat”(3) providing ample shade, not only for the head and neck of the wearer, but also to their shoulders (4). The exact origins of the sombrero are not entirely known; 13th century Mongolian horsemen were known to wear wide-brim hats whilst riding, but it is generally understood that the Mexican sombrero is thought to have originated in Central Mexico with Mestizo cowboys (5). It also became the basis of the cowboy hat; ranchers in the United States adopted and modified the style (6), making the brim smaller and creating the iconic cowboy hat.

Furthermore, it was not just straw that was used as a material for the sombrero. Felt was also commonly used to make sombreros, and it was your social and economic status that determined what material you wore (7). The cheapest and most basic sombreros were made of straw and worn by farmers and peasants. They could be made from different types of straw, and often used dyed straw to create different patterns and designs (8). Felt sombreros, and sometimes velvet, were worn by the upper classes, and could be very highly decorated and embroidered. Moreover, the simple straw sombreros usually have a narrower brim and are only used to protect against the sun, whereas the more expensive sombreros made from heavier materials have a wider brim that not only better protects against the sun, but can also protect the clothes of the wearer from the rain (9). Decorations for sombreros can range from gold and silver embroidery to beads and sequins, with the chin strap being made from materials such as leather or ribbon, depending on the wearer (10).

Moreover, in Spanish the word sombrero actually refers to any kind of wide-brimmed hat, and there are quite a few different hats which are classed as sombreros, but have their own unique design. The charro is the most widespread sombrero, and most likely what we picture when we think of a sombrero (11). It is this hat which is worn by traditional Mexican Mariachi musicians. These particular hats would be too heavy and impractical to wear out in the fields (12), due to the exaggerated size of the brims and the ornate decoration of the hat. The hat would be decorated in a similar fashion to their clothing, usually with lots of beadwork and embroidery, often using gold threads. Mariachi musicians have helped to make the sombrero an iconic piece of Mexican culture, as the sombrero has come to be an integral part of their costume.

The Mexican Hat Dance - Jarabe Tapatío - is another important piece of Mexican culture that highlights the sombrero. This national dance of Mexico is a courtship dance, and tells the story of a young charro man who tries to gain the affections of a woman. His most prized possession is his sombrero, which he throws on the ground as an offering for her, and she accepts by dancing on the brim of his hat (13). The charro sombrero is also worn in the traditional Mexican sport Charrería, which is similar to a rodeo, and involves equestrian tricks, as well as horsemanship and dances. Those who participate are called charros, and they wear the charro hat (14). Another style of sombrero is the Tejano, or the ‘Texan’, due to its popularity in the north of Mexico and the Southwest of the United States. The sides of the hat are slightly upturned, and they are usually made of animal skin, sporting a thin band around the base (15). These are the type of hats that would have been worn by cowboys in old Westerns, and are still worn by Mexican cowboys to this date.

However, unfortunately the sombrero has come to be associated with negative Mexican stereotypes. It is often portrayed as a symbol of laziness, especially in “comic strips, cartoons and live action films” (16), as they often depict Mexican people wearing oversized sombreros and “sitting about with [them] pulled down over their heads, having a siesta.” (17) Moreover, when googling the word sombrero, the first results are links to fancy dress shops and pictures of the sombrero as part of a cheap dress-up costume, making it difficult to find any real information on the history and culture behind the sombrero, and turning the hat into a caricature. They are often sold as cheap souvenirs for tourists and novelty items; a piece of Mexico for you to take away and keep. This can detract from the significance of the sombrero, and turn it into something comical and trivial. It is important that the sombrero is seen as more than just a souvenir or a fancy dress item, and is recognised for its rich history and significance in Mexican culture, as well as its practicality and functionality, thereby honouring the original roots of the hat.

References:
1 ‘Sombrero’, Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sombrero [accessed 28 October 2020]
2 ibid
3 ibid
4 ‘Sombrero Hat - History and Types of Sombrero Hats’, History of Hats http://www.historyofhats.net/hat-history/history-of-sombrero/ [accessed 27 October 2020]
5 ‘The History of the Sombrero’, La Fuente, 2018 https://www.lafuente.com/Blog/The-History-of-the-Sombrero/ [accessed 26 October 2020]
6 ‘Sombrero’, Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/sombrero [accessed 28 October 2020]
7 ‘The Culture and History Behind the Mexican Sombrero’, Adam Garcia, Banderas News, 2016   http://www.banderasnews.com/1603/vl-boardwalk-realty-the-sombrero.htm [accessed 29 October 2020]
8 ‘The History of Mexican Sombrero Hats’, Monica Wachman, Classroom, 2017  https://classroom.synonym.com/the-history-of-mexican-sombrero-hats-12079482.html [accessed 24 October 2020]
9 ‘Sombrero Hat - History and Types of Sombrero Hats’, History of Hats http://www.historyofhats.net/hat-history/history-of-sombrero/ [accessed 27 October 2020]
10 ‘The Culture and History Behind the Mexican Sombrero’, Adam Garcia, Banderas News, 2016 http://www.banderasnews.com/1603/vl-boardwalk-realty-the-sombrero.htm [accessed 29 October 2020]
11 ‘The Wide World of Mexican Sombreros’, Lydia Carey, Culture Trip, 2018  https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/mexico/articles/the-wide-world-of-mexican-sombreros/ [accessed 24 October 2020]
12 ‘Sombrero Hat - History and Types of Sombrero Hats’, History of Hats http://www.historyofhats.net/hat-history/history-of-sombrero/ [accessed 27 October 2020]
13 ‘The History of Mexican Sombrero Hats’, Monica Wachman, Classroom, 2017  https://classroom.synonym.com/the-history-of-mexican-sombrero-hats-12079482.html [accessed 24 October 2020]
14 ‘The Wide World of Mexican Sombreros’, Lydia Carey, Culture Trip, 2018  https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/mexico/articles/the-wide-world-of-mexican-sombreros/ [accessed 24 October 2020]
15 ibid
16 ‘The History of Mexican Sombrero Hats’, Monica Wachman, Classroom, 2017  https://classroom.synonym.com/the-history-of-mexican-sombrero-hats-12079482.html [accessed 24 October 2020]
17 ibid

 

  • 1. An example of a highly decorated Mariachi sombrero © Banderas News
  • 2. Black and Gold Charro Sombrero © La Fuente Imports
  • 3. Underside of a Navy Blue and Silver Charro Sombrero © La Fuente Imports
  • 4. A straw sombrero with detail around the base © Wonderopolis