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|Fig 1: Mexica commoner wearing a simple loincloth, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
Professor Patricia Rieff Anawalt (on our Panel of Experts) was the first to document clearly that the peoples of Mesoamerica were perhaps unique in the world in developing and following all 5 of these principles (in her classic book Indian Clothing Before Cortés). These construction styles are:-
• ‘draped garments’
• ‘slip-on garments’
• ‘open-sewn garments’
• ‘closed-sewn garments’
• ‘limb-encasing garments’.
|Fig 2: Aztec goddess wearing a quechquémitl, Codex Magliabecchiano, folio 58r (Click on image to enlarge)|
Where is the evidence? Almost no original pre-Hispanic costume items have been preserved, for the simple reason that the climate and environment of the region, together with the perishable nature of the materials, has meant that very few actual specimens have survived. This loss is in part made up for, mercifully, by the rich examples illustrated in codices and on sculpted figures, and we have included one of each ‘archetype’ here.
|Fig 3: A scantily-clad young man (wearing a xicolli) prepares to become a priest, Codex Mendoza folio 63. (Click on image to enlarge)|
The principles speak largely for themselves. First is the draped garment, formed simply by wrapping a piece of material around the body. Examples of this among Aztec/Mexica costumes would be the male maxtlatl (loin-cloth: see Fig 1), the male tilmatli (cape), and the female cueitl (skirt).
|Fig 4: A newly-married woman spins cotton thread, Codex Mendoza, folio 68r. (Click on image to enlarge)|
The second is the slip-on garment that slips over the head through a neck opening, is worn hanging from the shoulders, and has no underarm seams - represented by the Aztec/Mexica quechquémitl, a woman’s slip-on garment with a triangular appearance (see Fig 2).
|Fig 5: Aztec tlahuiztli, Codex Mendoza folio 65r. (Click on image to enlarge)|
The third is the open-sewn garment, worn open at the front like a waistcoat. Although the Aztec/Mexica xicolli has ties to secure the two front panels, it certainly fits into this category (see Fig 3).
|This unusual postcard image - from a Mexican Independence Day parade around 1910 - gives a surprisingly good idea of what Aztec women’s embroidered ‘huipiles’ might have looked like, albeit it in black and white! (Click on image to enlarge)|
Closed-sewn garments - the fourth type - are not worn open: they’re either pulled on over the head or secured all the way up the back or front by some type of fasteners. The best Aztec/Mexica example (see Fig 4) is the huipilli, the woman’s basic upper-body garment - a sleeveless tunic or shift that came to a little below the hips.
The final principle - limb-encasing garments - is the only type that involves the cutting and sewing of the costume to follow the shape of or to encase the body - what we would call ‘tailor-made’. The only example of this category among Aztec/Mexica styles was the tlahuiztli warrior outfit, a complete body-suit and example of special-purpose clothing (see Fig 5). Different ranks of warrior wore this costume, the difference being shown by varying colours, feather combinations and headpieces.
In summary, most Aztec clothing was draped, ‘worn just as it came from the loom, knotted over the shoulders as a cloak, tied about the waist as a hip-cloth, or wrapped around the body as a loincloth or skirt.’ As you might expect among a people with clearly marked different social classes, Aztec/Mexica clothing reflected these contrasts, the most elaborate costumes being reserved for members of military and religious orders and - perhaps above all others - for deity impersonators.
Info from Indian Clothing Before Cortés: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices by Patricia Rieff Anawalt, University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
• Main picture thanks to and courtesy of Debs Tyler/Mexicolore
• Photo of Aztec commoner figure by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our copy of the facsimile edition by ADEVA, Austria, 1970
• Images from the Codex Mendoza scanned and adapted from our copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• B/W postcard image sent to us by and thanks to Gael Ollivier.
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