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Clothing of Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas
Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear Through the Ages. 2nd ed. 2013. From World History In Context.
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Page 375

Clothing of Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas

Though the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas were separated in time and in geography, their clothing closely resembled each other. In general, children were naked, and men wore loincloths, adding tunics, or shirts, and cloaks in colder weather. The dress of women was more variable. Mayan women wore skirts with or without a scarf tied to cover their breasts, and Aztec and Incan women wore dresses made from a wrapped piece of fabric, or ankle-length tunic dresses. None of the clothing was cut to fit the body. Any holes needed for the head were left during the weaving process, and cloth was ready to wear straight off the loom, a weaving device.

The fabric used for clothing held great importance among the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas. In each culture the type of cloth and the decoration applied to garments signaled the wearer's status in society. The Aztecs passed a law that forbade poor people from wearing cotton, and among the Incas only the wealthy could wear a specially woven cloth called cumbi, a fine, soft cloth often made of baby alpaca wool that was valued as highly as gold. Similarly, the clothes of the poorest members of society were quite plain. Poor men, for example, would wear simple loincloths and cloaks woven from plant fiber with little or no added decoration, while wealthy men dressed in brightly colored and intricately patterned clothes embellished with embroidery, feathers, or golden or shell beads.

Among the Incas, woven fabric was as precious as gold was to the Spaniards who invaded in the 1500s. The Incan tradition of fabric

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A woman weaving on a Mayan loom. Mayan, Aztec, and Incan clothing were often ready to wear straight off the loom.

A woman weaving on a Mayan loom. Mayan, Aztec, and Incan clothing were often ready to wear straight off the loom. © FRANS LEMMENS/CORBIS BRIDGE/ALAMY.
 

making involved all but the wealthiest members of society. Cotton was grown by farmers, and wool was gathered from tended herds of alpacas and llamas. Women of the poorer classes wove the cloth needed to dress their family, but some men and religious women became weavers for the noble classes. These professional weavers created an intricate cloth called cumbi cloth, which was tightly woven with geometric designs of many colors. Cumbi cloth was used as a tax payment to the emperor and for ceremonial clothing. It was so important that it was worn by the emperor himself and his family.

The infiltration of foreigners into the cultures of the Mayas, Incas, and Aztecs eventually altered the traditional clothing styles of these three cultures. The Mayan culture began to collapse, for reasons yet to be discovered, starting in 900 C.E. when another native group called the Toltecs came to power. Mayan clothing history has been pieced together from oral histories and archaeological excavations, or scientific digs to uncover past cultures. The Aztecs, who rose to power in about 1200 C.E. in the Valley of Mexico, which surrounds modern-day Mexico City, abruptly changed their culture in 1521 when Spaniards began to force Aztecs to adopt a Spanish way of life. For the Incas in South America, the Spanish also introduced great change, conquering the Incan empire in the 1530s and finally overrunning it in 1572 by killing the last Incan emperor.

For More Information

Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendor. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Bray, Warwick. Everyday Life of the Aztecs. New York: Putnam, 1968.

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Wilcox, R. Turner. Five Centuries of American Costume. New York: Dover Publications, 2011.

Wood, Tim. The Aztecs. New York: Viking, 1992.

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Cloaks

Cloaks are among the most common garment in human clothing history; cultures across time and the globe have used cloaks to keep warm. Blanket-like cloaks were worn by both men and women of the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires. Each empire used a different name for its cloaks, and often cloaks worn by men had different names than those worn by women.

Mayan men wore cloaks called pati, which were cloths tied around the shoulders. The pati of poor Mayas were plain cotton cloaks, but the highest-ranking Mayan men draped elegant pati of jaguar skin or feathers from a quetzal (a bird with brilliant blue-green feathers that reach 3 feet in length) around their shoulders. The cloaks of Aztecs, for which no specific name is known, were designed differently for people of different ranks as well. The poorest people wore cloaks woven from the fiber of maguey, a spiny-leaved plant. Their cloaks reached no further than their knees. The wealthiest people wore extravagantly decorated cotton cloaks that swept the ground. Cloaks were such a symbol of wealth among the Aztecs that people sometimes wore more than one cloak at a time if they could afford it. However, each year Aztec emperors did grant poor people gifts of cloaks that had been given to the emperors from conquered peoples.

Incan men called their cloaks yacolla. Worn while dancing or working, yacolla were tied over the left shoulder to secure them if needed. Incan women fastened their cloaks, called lliclla, with pins in front of their chests. The poorest Incas wore simple cloaks, but the wealthiest wore cloaks made of specially woven fabric called cumbi cloth, which had designs indicating a person's rank woven into the fabric.


A man wearing a cloak made out of animal skin. Cloaks could be made of antelope, buffalo, deer, rabbit, or other animal skin.

A man wearing a cloak made out of animal skin. Cloaks could be made of antelope, buffalo, deer, rabbit, or other animal skin. ©. ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION (NARA).
 

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For More Information

Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendor. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Bray, Warwick. Everyday Life of the Aztecs. New York: Putnam, 1968.

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Wood, Tim. The Aztecs. New York: Viking, 1992.

Loincloths

Men in the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan empires all wore loincloths, the most basic form of male clothing in many ancient cultures. Loincloths were made out of strips of fabric wound around the waist and between the legs, leaving flaps hanging in the front and back. The climate of Central and South America was so warm that sometimes a loincloth was the only garment men would wear.

The loincloths worn in each empire ranged from simple and plain to beautifully decorated garments. Mayas called the loincloth an ex and


Aztec emissaries delivering offerings to Spanish conquistador Hernn Corts. The Aztecs are wearing traditional cloaks and loincloths.

Aztec emissaries delivering offerings to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. The Aztecs are wearing traditional cloaks and loincloths. © INTERFOTO/PERSONALITIES/ALAMY.
 

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made it out of an 8- to 10-foot (244- to 305-centimeters) length of cotton cloth. The poorest Mayan men would wear a plain ex, but wealthier men would wear an ex made from patterned cloth and adorned with embroidery, feathers, or fringe. Aztec men wore loincloths, for which no specific name is known, starting at age four. Aztec society enforced strict laws about which men could wear certain types of loincloths. Those wearing the wrong type of loincloth would be severely punished. Men of wealth and power could wear cotton, but poorer men were forced to wear loincloths made of maguey fiber, a fleshy-leaved plant fiber. From age fourteen or fifteen Incan men wore a loincloth called a guara, which was made out of a long cloth about 4 inches (10 centimeters) wide. The highest-ranking men could wear guara with special designs woven into the fabric.

For More Information

Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendor. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.

Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Tunic

Tunics were sometimes worn by the men of Mayan, Aztec, and Incan cultures. Made of a woven rectangle of cotton, wool, or plant fiber fabric with a hole in the center for the head, tunics resembled loose, sleeveless pullover shirts that hung from the shoulders to within a few inches above or below the knee. Tunics were either left open at the sides or sewn leaving holes near the top fold for the arms to slip through. Tunics could hang freely or be wrapped at the waist with a sash. Most often worn by men with loincloths, longer, ankle-length versions of the tunic were also worn by some Incan women. Like loincloths and cloaks, a tunic signaled a person's social status by the quality of its fabric and richness of its decoration.

For More Information

Aztecs: Reign of Blood and Splendor. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992. Bray, Warwick. Everyday Life of the Aztecs. New York: Putnam, 1968.

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Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.

Wilcox, R. Turner. Five Centuries of American Costume. New York: Dover Publications, 2011.

Wood, Tim. The Aztecs. New York: Viking, 1992.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Clothing of Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas." Fashion, Costume, and Culture: Clothing, Headwear, Body Decorations, and Footwear Through the Ages, edited by Sara Pendergast, et al., 2nd ed., vol. 2: Early Cultures Across the Globe, UXL, 2013, pp. 375-380. World History in Context, http%3A%2F%2Flink.galegroup.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2760000077%2FWHIC%3Fu%3Dvol_h58hs%26sid%3DWHIC%26xid%3Dac51f82e. Accessed 17 Aug. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2760000077

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  • Animal skins
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
      • 2: 377
      • 2: 377 (ill.)
  • Aztecs
    • clothing
      • 2: 375
      • 2: 376
      • 2: 377
      • 2: 378 (ill.)
      • 2: 379
  • Cloaks
  • Clothing
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
      • 2: 375-79
      • 2: 376 (ill.)
      • 2: 377 (ill.)
      • 2: 378 (ill.)
  • Cotton
    • Aztec sumptuary laws
      • 2: 375
    • Incan
      • 2: 376
  • Cumbi
    • 2: 375
    • 2: 376
  • Dresses
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
      • 2: 375
  • Feathers, use of
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
  • Guara
    • 2: 379
  • Incas
    • clothing
      • 2: 375-76
      • 2: 377
      • 2: 379
  • Lliclla
    • 2: 377
  • Loin coverings
  • Mayas
    • clothing
      • 2: 375
      • 2: 376
      • 2: 376 (ill.)
      • 2: 377
      • 2: 378-79
  • Pati
    • 2: 377
  • Plant fibers, use of
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
      • 2: 377
      • 2: 379
  • Sumptuary laws
    • Aztec/Incan
      • 2: 375
  • Textile industry
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
  • Tunic
    • Aztec/Incan/Mayan
      • 2: 379
  • Women
  • Wool
    • Incan
      • 2: 375
      • 2: 376
  • Yacolla
    • 2: 377