Though the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas were separated in time and in geography, their clothing closely resembled each other. In general, children were naked, and men wore loincloths, adding tunics, or shirts, and cloaks in colder weather. The dress of women was more variable. Mayan women wore skirts with or without a scarf tied to cover their breasts, and Aztec and Inca women wore dresses made from a wrapped piece of fabric, or ankle-length tunic dresses. None of the clothing was cut to fit the body. Any holes needed for the head were left during the weaving process, and cloth was ready to wear straight off the loom, a weaving device.
The fabric used for clothing held great importance among the Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. In each culture the type of cloth and the decoration applied to garments signaled the wearer's status in society. The Aztecs passed a law that forbade poor people from wearing cotton, and among the Incas only the wealthy could wear a specially woven cloth called cumbi, a fine, soft cloth often made of baby alpaca wool that was valued as highly as gold. Similarly, the clothes of the poorest members of society were quite plain. Poor men, for example, would wear simple loincloths and cloaks woven from plant fiber with little or no added decoration, while wealthy men dressed in brightly colored and intricately patterned clothes embellished with embroidery, feathers, or golden or shell beads.
Among the Inca, woven fabric was as precious as gold was to the Spaniards who invaded in the 1500s. Their tradition of fabric making involved all but the wealthiest members of society. Cotton was grown by farmers, and wool was gathered from tended herds of alpacas and llamas. Women of the poorer classes wove the cloth needed to dress their family, but some men and religious women became weavers for the noble classes. These professional weavers created an intricate cloth called cumbi cloth, which was tightly woven with geometric designs of many colors. Cumbi cloth was used as a tax payment to the emperor and for ceremonial clothing. It was so important that it was worn by the emperor himself and his family.
The infiltration of foreigners into the cultures of the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs eventually altered the traditional clothing styles of these three cultures. The Mayan culture began to collapse, for reasons yet to be discovered, starting in 900 C.E. when another native group called the Toltecs came to power. Mayan clothing history has been pieced together from oral histories and archaeological excavations, or scientific digs to uncover past cultures. The Aztecs, who rose to power in about 1200 C.E. in the Valley of Mexico, which surrounds modern-day Mexico City, abruptly changed their culture in 1521 when Spaniards began to force Aztecs to adopt a Spanish way of life. For the Inca in South America, the Spanish also introduced great change, conquering the Inca empire in the 1530s and finally overrunning it in 1572 by killing the last Inca emperor.
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Day, Nancy. Your Travel Guide to Ancient Mayan Civilization. Minneapolis, MN: Runestone Press, 2001.
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