Clothing And Identity

Dress is not simply a passive reflection of identity—it has a powerful relationship to how individuals understand themselves and interact with others.

Cara Grace Tremain (Anthropologist)

Whether intended or not, clothing communicates. For example, an apron in modern society can signal that the wearer is a chef or manual laborer. It can also symbolize the wearer’s beliefs and values, as when it’s worn by a Rabbi. The elite Maya of the Classic Period went to extremes in the latter category, investing many items of clothing with meaning. 

While some Maya garments were simply intended to beautify or eroticize the body, those depicted on works of art—including regalia, jewelry and body manipulation (hair arrangments, scarification, tattooing, piercing, teeth filing and cranial modification)—were rich with meanings that  referenced and celebrated their myths and ideology. In the Early Preclassic period, symbols were largely based on ancestor veneration. In the Classic Period, belief systems evolved to where the emphasis was on stories of creation, gods and apotheosized rulers—those who’d died and became deified. 

With regard to body coverings, the materials at hand were mostly plant fibers such as cotton, kapok, yucca and agave which contains henequen and maguey fibers. Animal products such as duck and goose feathers, deer hides and feline furs were incorporated as well. Slaves and the poorest of the poor wore garments made of softened bark paper. A thousand years later, in Aztec Mexico, only the king could wear fine mantles of cotton. So it’s likely that cotton was also reserved for Maya elites. With regard to the commoners very little is known about their coverings, except they mostly consisted of maguey fibers. Soaking and cooking the leaves made them tender enough to scrape and shape into long soft threads that were dried in the sun and then woven into fabrics.

The principle device for weaving raw fiber into cloth was the backstrap loom, similar to the ones used today. Since the looms are not very wide, several widths were sewn together to create square or rectangular shaped garments that could be fitted in place with a belt or fabric tie. Weaving lent itself to the making of geometric shapes and patterns. Below, the patterns woven into the woman’s huipil and the ruler’s cape signify the four directions. 

Yaxchilan Lintel 24

Dated approximately 709 AD, Shield Jaguar holds a torch over his wife, Lady Xoc, who performs a bloodletting sacrifice by pulling a barbed cord through her tongue. Her huipil appears to be embroidered and trimmed with fringe and pearls, and the pectoral on her beaded collar—likely made of shell or jade plaques—depicts the sun god. The object at their feet is an offering bowl containing blood-splattered cloths to be burned along with copal incence. 

Although insect, vegetable and mineral dyes were traded extensively in the Classic Period, the archaeological record indicates a strong preference for painting on cloth—clothing—using stamps and brushes. Embroidered stitching, which was an easy and quick way to embellish a woven garment with color and designs is also in evidence, worn by elite women. Though scholars are still debating gender roles and responsibilities, weaving tended to be the domain of women, and farming the responsibility of men. Attire for both men and women varied depending on the individual, status, location and time period.

In this unprovenanced panel in the Cleveland Museum of Art dated 795 AD, a royal woman holds an effigy, a “God K” or “K’awiil scepter.” When kings held it out they proclaimed themselves masters of the “vision serpent,” the ability to negotiate with the gods. This could be another instance of a woman who ruled. (See my posting “K’awiil” for more details on this deity). 

Women wore huipils, a long outer garment that covered the shoulders, chest and hips. Those worn by commoners were likely plain or with little embellishment. The huipils of elite and royal women usually contained symbols. The four quatrafoil designs on the above figure are signs that represent the “portal” to the otherworlds. They also wore an undergarment that showed beneath the huipil. In hot climates, women of all ranks more often wore a sarong, a long garment tied under the arms that could more or less conceal the legs (See the figurine on the right in the first photo). 

Men of all ranks wore a loincloth, some with shorter or longer hanging ends (See the middle figurine), a long or short skirt, a short waist-length jacket and in some instances a short cape. Because males depicted on monuments are sometimes shown wearing long skirts as seen on Copan Stela H (Schele #1011), it took the decipherment of inscriptions for scholars to realize they were men. The length of a skirt alone is no longer considered an indication of gender. 

Piedras Negras Stela 8

Long or short, worn by a man or woman, whether as a skirt or cape, the jade-beaded latticework (Seen above on the king’s skirt) signifies the Maize god. Commonly, a Spondylus (spiny oyster) shell hangs from the belt with the face of a fish on it, a mythological shark who the Maize god defeated in Underworld, worn as a sign of victory. That the beaded garments are worn by men and women, anthropologist Karen Bassie-Sweet regards the beaded skirt as an example of gender “complementarity”  considering that maize plants—and therefore the Maize god—have both male and female elements.

Evident in the art, lavish clothing, regalia and costumes signified elite status. Fabric embellishments could include jaguar pelts, bird feathers, flowers and wood, leather or thinly painted ceramic constructions that represented fish, waterlilies, the heads of gods and monsters and other mythical or symbolic creatures. At the other end of the spectrum, nudity signaled disgrace.

The elaboration of footwear was another element that distinguished the elite from commoners. Slaves went barefoot. Most everyone else wore sandals, although I notice the royal woman wearing the decorated huipil in the above drawing is barefoot. Kings always wore high-backed and probably animal hide sandals, often embellished with feathers and jewels that included symbols. For example, notice the jaguar pelt sandals worn by the king in the drawing where he holds a torch over his wife as she performs a blood sacrifice. 

Reference to backstrap looms
Excerpts from Jaguar Rising (pgs. 31 and 223) 

Thunder Flute interrupted. “Of all the places we trade, none offers better embroidery. On the last trip, the exchange was better here than at Kaminaljuyu. Lord Macaw gives his son an advantage—and we take it.”

“All the women weave,” Pech said. “You will see—as soon as a flower can talk she will be sitting beside her mother at the loom. Unfortunately for us, the women at court do the best work. Most of it never reaches the marketplace. If I or one of the assistants is not nearby, do your best. Better to acquire fine work than not. You will know it when you see it.”

The steward led us across the plaza to a large house that sat on a high, white-painted platform with scarlet macaws in flight painted on both sides of a broad stairway. He told us his master was holding council, but he went in anyway to let him know that we were there. While we waited, Standing Rock led us to the corner of the platform that overlooked a patio where women were weaving with back-strap looms. Thunder Flute spoke from behind me and close to my ear. “Ladies of the court. They weave from dreams. The cotton is the finest you will see anywhere.” Voices behind us were three men in red robes coming through the doorway. They nodded to us and went down the steps.

Ruler Wearing Maize God Skirt
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 360)

Moments later, Lord Cormorant, lavishly attired in quetzal feathers and a jade-studded skirt, came down the steps with his jaguar prophet. Stopping on the first terrace, the prophet replaced the ruler’s k’atun helmet with the sak huunal. The prophet raised his arms and the drums called us to order. I judged there to be near to six hundred people there, all huddled in blankets. After several moments of silence, looking to the sky with arms outstretched, he gave the prophecy for the next twenty years.

A Gift Of Elite Sandals To A Merchant
Excerpt from Jaguar Rising (p. 315) 

BLOOD SHARK HAD THE SERVANTS MOVE MY ITEMS TO THE side and he gestured for me to follow. Blue Skin stepped down from the dais and Yellow Stone admitted other servants with bundles intended for Thunder Flute as he came over. “Thunder Flute Rabbit,” the lord said gesturing, “Your compensations for teaching Blue Skin and our first spears the ways of the Tollan warriors.” 

The largest bundle contained a tapir pelt and seven embroidered mantles, beautiful pieces for Thunder Flute’s wearing. Next, came an assortment of colorful feathers which Blue Skin named: turkey, eagle, toucan, duck and owl. The great white heron feathers were especially beautiful, but it was the owl feathers that Thunder Flute chose to touch with two fingers and express his gratitude. From a third bundle, he held up a pair of high-backed sandals. “The bottoms and straps are crocodile,” Blue Skin said. “The backs are doe-hide. Very soft.” Owl faces were burnt into both backs. When he put them on and walked, Thunder Flute’s face lit up like never before. 

“For when you become raised and titled,” Lord Tapir explained. “The burner tried to match the tattoo on your chest.” 

All drawings courtesy of The Montgomery Drawings Collection, 2000. FAMSI Resources.


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller


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