To put it simply…
A Serape or Sarape as it might be spelt is a rectangular blanket generally woven quite long (often seen as a table runner) that feature fancy designs generally associated with Mexican culture.
A poncho on the other hand is a rectangular blanket that has a neck-hole so that it can be worn draped over the front and back of your body as a garment.
So where does the confusion come from?
Let’s take a more detailed look in to the differences ponchos and a serapes
They might seem identical at first glance, but underneath their vibrant exteriors they are quite different animals. The mexican poncho and the mexican serape actually evolved independently in the North American frontier – and they are adapted to different uses and environments. Whether you are costuming a troupe for a historically accurate period drama, or just looking for a piece of bohemian chic to spice up your wardrobe, make sure you are using the appropriate garment.
As you can see, the poncho and the serape are very similar – both being made of the same material with the same general construction method. Whether you choose wool or a synthetic blend, ponchos and serapes will keep you warm in cool climates without stifling your freedom of movement.
Ponchos and serapes were developed in roughly the same climate, and they were both popular with the “rough and tumble” frontier settlers and cattle ranchers that had to prepare for huge swings in daily weather, tough physical activity, and constant sun beating down on them. The vibrant colors that are normally used on Mexican ponchos and serapes have cultural significance, and they are highly sought after by people all around the world. Even in London, not a locale known for its sunlight or wide-open spaces, people wear sarapes and ponchos to trumped their individualism and style.
The Mexican Poncho
The Mexican Poncho has come to represent the style and festive culture of an entire region of the world – but its history owes more to the blue-collar working spirit of Mexican settlers rather than the free-wheeling individualism and party-hard nature of Spring Break tourists.
At its most basic level, the poncho is a large sheet of fabric with a hole in the middle for the wearer’s head. Ponchos are the most utilitarian of clothing – but they can be dressed up with fringes, hoods, and vivid patterns.
The poncho was first used in the Andes mountains back before the first settlers from Spain crossed the Atlantic to make their fortunes in the New World. Early Meso-Americans used the poncho as a “Swiss Army Knife” of garments, relying on it for everything from work clothes to ritual wear. When the Spaniards settled the region, they hit upon the useful design for military uniforms as well as clothing for field laborers and ranchers.
Early ponchos were actually waterproof, and they were designed to be fastened against the rain with ropes and tar. Luckily, modern ponchos are a bit more fashionable – and they come in every color under the rainbow. Like the early ponchos, we typically find ponchos made from wool – or crocheted from yarn – since wool retains its insulating properties even when it becomes wet.
Unlike the poncho, the serape is not designed to be worn as a primary garment – rather, it is supposed to accent the outerwear that someone already has. Serapes were first worn in Mexico, usually be men that worked in middle-class or upper-class positions. Some of the first serapes were made with hoods – although these are so functionally similar to ponchos that we typically lump them into the former group for the sake of simplicity.
Unlike ponchos, serapes were not designed by the indigenous people of modern-day Mexico, but they were designed instead as urban fashion by the Spanish settlers that came over. Basically, the serape is like a poncho that has been modified to make it a bit less bulky, transforming the poncho from a staple of laborer wardrobes to something that is accessible by people all over the world.
In Guatemala, the primary country that exports serapes, many Mayan families are able to subsist entirely on the proceeds from the sale and export of this clothing to city dwellers and to foreigners. The sale of serapes can help subsidize the Mayan families when they are unable to make enough to subsist on agriculture, so brokering serapes is actually a great way to support the developing economy of the region. Additionally, the handmade nature of authentic serapes lends credibility to the entire look by including small imperfections that are barely noticeable to the eye, but they keep the serape from looking as though it was produced by machine.