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Chloe Sayer

Question for January 2006

Did the Aztecs wear winter clothes? Asked by Applecroft Primary School. Chosen and answered by Chloe Sayer.

Picture 1
Picture 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

This question seems particularly relevant in January 2006 in wintry Britain. Here, snow has fallen and temperatures have dropped to well below freezing. In the Valley of Mexico, however, the weather is much milder. Although the Aztec heartland lay approximately 2,100 m. (7,000 ft.) above sea level, it was (and is) a temperate region. During the dry months of December, January and February, the days are usually warm and sunny. But sharp changes of temperature do occur, and the ‘winter’ nights are sometimes chilly. So it makes sense to ask whether the Aztecs had special clothing for cold periods.

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Picture 2 (Click on image to enlarge)

Although very few examples of textiles or clothing have survived from Aztec times, pictorial manuscripts and sculpted figures do give us a good idea of the way that people dressed. We can also read the descriptions written at the time of the Conquest by Spanish observers. Aztec women wore a sleeveless tunic, or huipilli, with a wrap-around skirt, or cueitl, secured at the waist by a sash. Aztec men wore a loincloth, or maxtlatl, and a cloak, or tilmatli. This was a rectangular piece of cloth tied over the right shoulder or the chest. When an Aztec man sat down, he brought his cloak forward to cover his body and legs. Although these same basic garments were worn at all social levels, strict laws regulated the choice of fibre and the degree of decoration. The status of individuals was reflected by their attire. The clothing of ordinary people was made from ixtle, or the fibre of the agave. This is a stiff fibre, yet Aztec techniques for the spinning and weaving of ixtle were capable of producing flexible and delicate cloth. Cotton was reserved for members of the elite. Whereas the garments of ordinary people were usually white with little ornamentation, a wealth of colour and patterning distinguished those worn by dignitaries. Predictably, post-Conquest accounts of Aztec life focused chiefly on the clothing and customs of the privileged classes. One source described a cloak ‘woven with designs that represented sea-shells, which were made of rabbit hair dyed red on a background of pale-blue whirlpools...’ Another cloak ‘had a tawny background, and scattered upon it butterflies woven from white feathers’. Whereas Inca weavers in Peru could use the wool of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas, weavers in Mexico had no wool flocks until the introduction of sheep and goats by Spanish settlers. Rabbit hair and soft feathers had a decorative role before the Conquest, but they also served a practical purpose. Interspun with cotton, they produced luxurious and downy cloth.

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Picture 3 (Click on image to enlarge)

Tochomitl, fur from the soft underbelly of hares as well as rabbits, was widely traded. Admired by numerous peoples including the Aztecs, it could be dyed before being woven into cloth and embroidered on to garments. Spanish observers praised the rich colours and silk-like sheen of such clothing. According to the Spaniard Francisco Clavijero, tochomitl was used to make ‘extremely soft cloth which men of rank wore in winter’. The cloak, or tilmatli, was the most important guide to masculine status. Some dignitaries apparently wore two and even three cloaks together. Although the wearer was displaying his wealth and importance, the use of several cloaks would certainly have kept the cold at bay. Less is known about the lives of ordinary people who were expected to serve the State. Although denied the trappings of wealth and power, they doubtless found their own ways of keeping warm while also taking pleasure in the outward appearance of their clothing.

ILLUSTRATIONS:

Picture 1. Richly patterned male and female garments worn by the Aztec nobility. Codex Primeros Memoriales.

Picture 2. Nezahualpilli, ruler of Texcoco, wearing a magnificent tilmatli (cloak) and matching maxtlatl (loincloth). Codex Ixtilxochitl.

Picture 3. Section of pre-Hispanic cloth found in Guerrero. Tochomitl has been spun and twisted with cotton thread to make this once luxurious and intricately patterned garment. (Photograph: Marcos Ortiz)

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Aztec clothing, see:

Anawalt, Patricia ‘Indian Clothing Before Cortés: Mesoamerican Costumes From the Codices’ University of Oklahoma Press, 1981
pp 15-60

Sayer, Chloë ‘Mexican Textiles’ British Museum Press, 1990
pp 51-69

Soustelle, Jacques ‘Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest’ Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2002 pp 131-139.

Chloe Sayer has answered 4 questions altogether:

Did the Aztecs wear winter clothes?

Are there any communities left in Mexico where they still follow the old religion?

Did the Aztecs use the pottery wheel to make their pottery?

What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession? (2)

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