Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Clothing of the Ancient Maya

Author's note: This post was adjusted on December 12, 2017.


This is a whistle that was made around the 600s to 800s AD.
It's made of ceramic, and shows a woman -- the
blue paint was put on after the maker baked the whistle. From LACMA.


There is not a lot known about how the Maya dressed like in ancient times, and what is known mostly is information on people understood to have been elites. This is because of the environment in which the ancient Maya lived. That is, like the codices, a lot of the clothing has rotted away because of humidity. (Archaeologists have found pieces of cloth sometimes, such as in the Sacred Cenote.)

Instead archaeologists try to interpret the fashion sense of the Maya civilization via various other mediums. Examples of these mediums include things like pottery that has been painted, carvings like lintels and monuments, ceramic figurines, the four known codices, and murals. Archaeologists also have used records that people made in the 1500s.

General Concept
This is a figurine of a woman made
between the 600s AD and 900s AD.
There are several places it made have been
created, one of which is the Mexican State
of Campeche. From LACMA.
As it is currently understood, the ancient Maya had different ideas about clothes than people do today. For one thing, they never made clothes so they fit close to the body of their own accord. Clothes tended to be held in place by being knotted or were held in place by belts made of cloth. And for another, they could be quite different from Western standards of modesty.

Materials
Despite the decay problem, it looks like the ancient Maya used several kinds of plants to spin into thread and make cloth. Two plants they used were the cotton plant and the maguey. (And they also would make bark cloth. It is possible that bark cloth was a material for ritual clothing.) Using the backstrap loom, the ancient Maya made different kinds of cloth like twill, plain, and gauze.

Beyond the materials themselves, the ancient Maya would dye their clothing, via plant and animal sourced dyes.  Examples of colors available to the ancient Maya dyers include green, purple, black, blue and various sources of red. Two other ways the ancient Maya decorated their cloth was by embroidering it and by brocading it, which is when the design is thicker than the rest of the cloth -- making it stick up. (See a bit more on ancient Maya cloth in this post.)

Head Wear 
Titled "Modeled Head of a
Nobleman," this stucco artifact
may have come from the northern
lowlands and was made 600 AD to 900
AD. From LACMA.
Women tended to wear either a complicated hairstyle that involved intertwining the hair with cloth, or wore turban-like headdresses. However, women's head wear fashions seem to have been less diverse than men's head wear fashions.

Men also wore different fashions of turban-like headdresses. However, they also seem to have worn other kinds of headdresses, that were commonly complicated structures made using various materials including such things as feathers, gems, animal hides.

On a related note, murals found at Calakmul show women wearing decorated sombreros, while men wear headscarves -- except for one man whose head wear looked like a bowler hat.




Clothing for Men
A male figurine made in Mexico,
in the 700s AD to 800s AD. From the
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Menswear included a loincloth that was, according to The Ancient Maya, ..."five fingers wide" -- though Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization says was between eight and ten feet long and ten inches wide. This loincloth was wrapped around the waist repeatedly before being passed between the legs. For the upper classes, they were commonly decorated with featherwork on the ends. Lower class men wore un-decorated loincloths.

Seemingly not as common as the loincloth, some depictions of men show them also wearing a pati. A pati is a big, square-shaped piece of cloth that is -- like the loincloth -- decorated in relation to the class of the wearer. The pati was tied around the wearer's shoulders. Not just for day-wear -- except for very fancy ones -- it was also used to sleep in.


Clothing for Women
Women would wear a skirt and/or a sleeveless, poncho-like tunic (commonly known today as the huipil) or a dress. Maya skirts were either tied with belt or was knotted in place with the huipil worn over the skirt. Elite women's skirts, as with other clothing, were more decorated than skirts of the lower classes -- they would have decorative fringes and knots.
This figurine is thought
to have the same dating and source
as the image to the left. From the
Yale University ArtGallery.

This figurine was made in Mexico between
the 500s AD to the 800s AD. From the
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Not everyone wore the huipil with their skirt, when they did wear more than a skirt. According to bishop Diego de Landa, women in Campeche, Balacar as well as along the coast wore a skirt as well as a folded piece of cloth tied around their torsos, under their armpits. He called the folded cloth a manta -- but The Ancient Maya: Fifth Edition calls a pati.

As to dresses, there seem to be different kinds of dresses worn by ancient Maya women. One kind of Maya dress is described in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing as a full length version of the tunic that was sewn up the sides. A second kind of dress seems to have been made of a large piece of cloth wrapped around the body.

Footwear
The ancient Maya wore sandals. Ancient Maya sandal straps had two thongs. One thong went in the space between the third and fourth toe. The other went in the space between the second and first toe. 

As with other aspects of ancient Maya society, it seems how fancy your sandals' design was depended on how high you ranked. Men who were not upper class wore deer-hide sandals that were untanned, with hemp cord for straps. For elites however, it seems they had much more complicated sandals.

References:
Google Books: "Encyclopedia of the Ancient Maya"; Walter R.T. Witschey; 2016

Google Books:" The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1501-1800", Volume 2"; Greenwood Publishing Group; 2008

 Google Books: "The Ancient Maya"; Robert J. Sharer, Loa P. Traxler; 2006








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