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Mysterious rectangular motif

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Matt Troup: What do you know of the rectangular patches on the sternum of women’s blouses? I see them in the pictures on the page ‘Aztec Hairstyles’ and on the page on women warriors in the ‘Ask the Experts’ section.

Nahua (Aztec) woman, Codex Tudela, folio 1
Nahua (Aztec) woman, Codex Tudela, folio 1 (Click on image to enlarge)

An intriguing question, Matt!
This patch/design/motif appears to be ubiquitous on Aztec/Mexica women’s huipiles (blouses), and indeed is still commonly found today. We consulted an international expert on Mexican clothing, Chloe Sayer, on this (Chloe is on our Panel of Experts) and she confirms that this rectangular design appears on huipiles in many codices. She says ‘In the Codex Mendoza even the simplest adult huipil was shown with a decorative lower border and a rectangular motif below the neck.’

Two generations of Aztec/Mexican women, Codex Mendoza folio 71
Two generations of Aztec/Mexican women, Codex Mendoza folio 71 (Click on image to enlarge)

She goes on to quote her own work in Mexican Textiles, 1990 p. 185 -
’A small but significant example of appliqué is also customary among the Chinantec women of San Lucas Ojitlán, who decorate their everyday and red fiesta huipiles with a small horizontal rectangle of ribbon. Situated some 10 in (25 cm) below the neckline, this addition is closely linked with pre-Hispanic design which often featured a similarly placed rectangular motif.’

Mexica noblewomen during the siege of Tenochtitlan, Codex Azcatitlan, folio 24b
Mexica noblewomen during the siege of Tenochtitlan, Codex Azcatitlan, folio 24b (Click on image to enlarge)

However as to the significance of this, we have no idea. Chloe has kindly passed your question on to Dr. Patricia Rieff Anawalt, a world expert on pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican clothing, and we hope she may be able to shed light on it. We promise to keep you posted...

UPDATE Jan 2010!
Patricia Anawalt (who has just joined our Panel of Experts) has kindly written to us with this extra information:-
’As for the significance of the rectangular area that appears on the Aztec huipilli, I interpret it as serving the practical purpose of strengthening the neck slit in order to protect it from tearing. That same rectangle appears on the huipilli of women of all classes, be they low-born drunkards (e.g. Codex Magliagechiano, folio 85) or high-born noblewomen about to be evacuated from besieged Tenochtitlan in 1521 (Codice Azcatitlan, planch 26). The huipilli rectangles of the noblewomen are elaborately decorated, as would be appropriate for the clothing of the highest class.’

Picture sources:-
• Codex Tudela image scanned from our own copy of the Colección Thesaurus Americae 2002 facsimile edition, Madrid
• Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxofrd) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile edition, London
• Codex Azcatitlan image: private source

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