Hannah Aronowitz, founder of the artisan brand Miha, is passionate about travel, ethical fashion, social justice, and where the three intersect. She splits her time between Portland, Oregon and Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) celebrations in Oaxaca are a wonder to behold, and an absolute blast to participate in. The celebrations are deeply rooted in indigenous traditions, and while the holiday is celebrated all over Mexico, it is particularly strong in Oaxaca, which has the largest indigenous population in the entire country.
Día de los Muertos highlights the unique relationship Mexicans have with death and their ancestors. Between October 31st and November 2nd (although festivities tend to start earlier and extend beyond the 2nd), it is believed that the souls of the departed return to visit their families.
You can expect to see altars dedicated to ancestors in homes and places of business, laden with photos, candles, and marigolds (referred to as flor de muerto, or flower of death), as well as food, drinks and other treats favored by the dearly departed, such as candy, mezcal and cigarettes. Gravesites are cleaned up and decorated, and families spend entire nights in the cemeteries, eating, drinking, and reveling with their deceased loved ones. In some towns, nightlong parades wind through the streets in a cacophony of sound and ghoulish costumes, with the intent of scaring off spirits that may seek to do harm.
If you’re planning to visit Oaxaca during these dates, you probably already know a bit about what to expect, but packing for the range of events can be hard to gauge. As someone who spends half her year in Oaxaca and is returning to enjoy Día de los Muertos for the fifth time, the experiences I’ve had have equipped me to offer a gringo’s guide to dressing well and respectfully for this celebration.
Some things to keep in mind while packing…
- Oaxaca in November is hot and sunny during the day, but after dark, the temperature drops considerably. Throughout the winter months in Oaxaca, nighttime temps could be called sweater weather. However, the nights during the Muertos celebrations tend to be some of the coldest of the year. The locals call it frío de muertos: cold of the dead. Perhaps the cold is only more noticeable since the majority of the celebrations occur outside, at night, ‘til dawn. Either way, you’ll want to bring a good warm coat. (A note from Alden: I always packing tights to go under my dress, but never end up needing them. Just a cozy poncho has always served me well.)
- Although the days can get quite hot, remember that Oaxaca is somewhat conservative in dress. While the sheer number of tourists means that no locals are shocked to see shorts or a tank top, you can avoid unwanted attention and connect more easily with Oaxacans if you’re dressed more modestly than you might during similar temperatures in the U.S.
- For footwear, practicality is key. Even in the city, certain neighborhoods are cobblestoned and sidewalks are often cracked or uneven. In the villages, many roads remain unpaved. And the cemeteries are very difficult to navigate, even in the most sensible shoes. Keep this in mind when selecting footwear. Boots are always a good bet.
When you arrive, make sure to spend some time in these beautiful artisan fashion stores.
What to Pack for Oaxaca
- Jeans for dressing up or down. Here’s a roundup of sustainable brands.
- Loose linen or cotton pants for breezy daytime coverage.
- Belt – Nisolo’s Noemi belt comes in many neutral colors .
- Daytime dress – Look for an easy, lightweight option, such as this one from Miha.
- Nice top and a skirt or dress for going out to a nice dinner, mezcal tasting or club. Reformation makes my favorite ethical dress-up pieces.
- Jumpsuit – An all-in-one option makes for easy outfits. I recommend one that works for daytime casual and then can be paired with boots and earrings for a nighttime look, such as this option from Miha.
- Gold or silver jewelry – Nisolo has really cute options.
- Lightweight shirts for daytime or casual dinner. Everlane and Mate both have great options.
- Light jacket or sweater
- Wool coat or poncho for long nights.
- Cozy sweats/pajamas. Mate designs sustainable and stylish sweats, basics tees and sweaters that are cute enough to serve as your travel outfit and then do double duty for sleeping or lounging around.
- Underwear/socks/bras I recommend bringing enough to last your trip so you don’t have to do laundry, or enough to get you through a week if you’re planning on a longer stay. Check out Organic Basics for sustainable (and sexy!) underthings and essentials.
- Swimsuit if your hotel has a pool, or if you plan on visiting local attraction Hierve el Agua. Here’s EcoCult’s roundup of sustainable swimwear.
- Boots that can be paired with a cute outfit for going out, but can also stand up to long nights spent in cemeteries, parading through the cobblestone streets, or dancing in agave fields. I love these Chelsea Boots from Nisolo.
- All-purpose sandals. Nisolo’s Go-To Flatform sandal and Huarache sandal are great everyday options. Also, Pons by Avarcas are my all-time favorite travel sandals. Here’s Alden’s review of them on a year-long trip.
- Sunhat – You’ll want something to protect your face from rays during the day, such as this one from Cuyana, or packable hats from Wyldaire.
- Small backpack or Daytime tote for day and nighttime adventures. I love this sleek backpack from MZ. Baggu has affordable and ethically-made options to suit your personal style, or try a Chila bag or one of the cotton totes you’ve got lying around
- Fanny pack or small crossbody for when you only need the essentials. Nisolo’s Clara Crossbody is a great option.
- Sunglasses – It’s sunny out there! My go-to pair is from Carla Colour.
Just for Dia de los Muertos
The classic Muertos costume is based on a character called La Catrina that was created by artist José Guadalupe Posada in the early 1900s. You’ll recognize the popularized image of a well-dressed female skeleton, with a plumed hat or flower crown. To take it back a bit further, La Catrina is based on the Aztec Goddess of Death.
This costume requires a painted face to resemble a stylized skull (which you can get done in Oaxaca at a street market or do yourself), a plumed hat or floral crown, and a long skirt or dress to complete the look.
The level of dress up you want to play with is totally up to you. US-style costumes are not common, although monster or devil-type outfits are appropriate for some celebrations. Traditional outfits are easy to find in Oaxacan shops, or you can bring a vintage gown or any other dress you want from home. There will be simple floral crowns for sale in Oaxaca, but to make your own, you can string up fresh marigolds with thread, or craft one before your trip by attaching silk flowers to a wide headband with hot glue or floral wire. (Like in this EcoCult tutorial.)
I’ve worn a Oaxacan skirt and blouse, a vintage floor-length gown, and a more contemporary outfit pulled together from ethical brands, such as Jessie Kamm, Reformation and Nisolo, paired with indie jewelry and a floral crown I crafted. Most people tend to wear predominantly black, the color of death, which is also maybe just the style of the chilangos (people from Mexico City), who come to Oaxaca in black-outfitted droves. I don’t own much black, so I like to wear all white, bright colors, or neutrals, and enjoy standing out among the crowd.
Objects for an altar. This is a personal call, but you might be inspired to create an altar of your own for your deceased loved ones. I like to bring photos for each family member I want to honor, and then buy candles, papel picado (paper streamers), flowers, and other offerings in Oaxaca.
Phone & charger
Camera, lenses, & battery charger
Laptop (if needed)
Portable battery pack – You’ll probably be using your phone as a map and camera as well as communication device, so having an extra charge will save your trips back to your room.
Reusable water bottle – A Lifestraw means you won’t have to buy bottled water.
To-go mug – This is optional, but I like to have one for grabbing coffee during the day and then for cocktails at an outdoor party.
Mini speaker (optional)
Mini wallet (so you can leave all your cards etc. in your room)
Toiletries – I recommend bringing everything you need. It’s better not to rely on the health/beauty/personal products you want being readily available. Extra important: sunscreen, chapstick, hand sanitizer.
Makeup removing wipes – The facepaint used is water soluble, so you can stand in the shower and get a lot of it off. But you’ll want wipes to take care of the black around your eyes, at least.
Wool socks (for the airplane)
Earplugs and an eye mask – These are key for me not only for traveling, but in order to sleep in during noisy and sunny mornings after a long night.
Flask – This is obviously optional, but a flask can make for enjoyable sips of mezcal during long chilly nights.
Packs of tissues – You’ll be glad to have these, as many bathrooms won’t be well-stocked.
Notebook/pen – Muertos celebration can bring up lots of emotions, and it’s nice to have a space to jot down your thoughts.
Dia de los Muertos is such a special tradition to participate in, and (no pressure) the festivities draw lots of fashionable people and epic costumes. Having the right outfits and items will help you make the most of your trip and fully sink into this singular experience.