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Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws
Author(s): Patricia Anawalt
Source: Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 1 (January/February 1980), pp. 33-43
Published by: Archaeological Institute of America
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Costume and Control
Aztec Sumptuaiy Laws
only what certain occupational groups must
In only wear.
today's what Aside
Aside world, certain
from dress occupational
religious regulations
orders, groups can
the dictate
must police,
firemen, waitresses and waiters or the military,
sartorial style usually depends on whim, the pocketbook and an individual's reaction to the arbiters
of fashion. If the means are available, one can
freely imitate the style of the richest and most
powerful members of our society. Not so in the
past. As sociologist Gideon Sjoberg points out, the
upper classes in early pre-industrial societies symbolized their position and set themselves apart
from the masses by accentuating particular patterns of speech, manners and dress. As a visual
symbol and display of position and wealth, elaborate clothing served most effectively to trumpet
social status.
Quauhtlatzacuilotly a lord of Tetzcoco , carries a flower
bouquet and a smoking tube. His cream-colored cloak bears
the repeated design of the conch shell trumpety a fertility
symbol. His red loincloth is decorated with four insects ,
perhaps butterflies , and his sandals appear to be made
of jaguar skin.
To guard these prerogatives of power and to
prevent imitation by the lower classes, since earliest times the elite have attempted to dictate who
can wear what by passing sumptuary laws - edicts
that have proved nearly impossible to enforce.
Attempts to limit the ladies of ancient Athens to
three traveling dresses failed. Republican Rome
during the second century b.c. had no greater
success in regulating the wearing of gold ornaments and multicolored garments. By the early
fourteenth century after Christ, the French Crown
admitted failure in its attempts to restrict by decree her citizens' expenditures on clothes according to class and wealth. Enterprising tailors,
cobblers and dressmakers could always be found
to satisfy the illegal demand for imitations of expensive and stylish apparel. Right up into the
eighteenth century, rulers persisted in their
futile attempts to prevent the lower classes
from copying the court.
Is this irrepressible urge to adorn the person
unique to the Old World and the western European experience? Apparently not. This basic
human drive can also be observed in the labora-
tory of the New World among the well docu-
January/ February 1980 33
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The feathered warrior
costumes and attendant
mantles presented by the
Aztec emperor to military
grades . These warrior
ranks reflect the number
of prisoners captured on
the field of battle.
mented Aztecs of pre-Hispanic Mexico, who are
reputed to have tighdy controlled the dress of
their sharply stratified society. The Aztec social
system was divided into five categories. At the top
were the aristocratic lineages which included the
ruler, his relatives and other noble lines. These
lords were supported by their private lands and
their sons were educated in special schools. Directly below the ruling class were the highly specialized artisans - those who produced luxury
goods - and the professional long-distance merchants. Both of these groups enjoyed special
privileges not available to the class below them.
The majority of Aztec citizens, however, were free
commoners who were organized into corporate
land-holding groups. Their elders were responsi-
ble for the distribution of the land according to
the needs and industriousness of each family. A
surprising amount of mobility was available to
the free commoners through service to the State.
As a result of prowess in warfare, even a man of
this class could attain a prominent position in
Aztec society.
Below the free commoners were a group of
landless workers who maintained the estates of the
nobles. Since this group had no land-holding affiliation with its attendant usufruct rights, they
were tied to the estates for their subsistence. The
lowest class of Aztec society was the slaves who
had no access to land. Slaves owed their labor to
their master who was usually a noble. A person
became a slave only through adversity which
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sometimes forced people to sell themselves or
their children. But slave status was reversible
and one could buy out of bondage. Furthermore,
the child of a slave was born free. Famine and
gambling were two factors that often drove people
into slavery. Many of the tameme or porters, the
only carriers in Mesoamerica, were slaves. Although war captives were also occasionally enslaved, the majority became sacrificial victims.
The Aztecs sought to dictate through
sumptuary laws not only the fiber and ornamentation of each class's clothing, but the manner in
which it was worn as well. Although no actual
pre- Hispanic costumes have survived because of
climate and ancient burial methods, a surprising
amount is known about the apparel and clothing
practices of the Indians of Middle America at the
time of Spanish contact. This information exists
thanks to one of the most remarkable intellectual
achievements of the Mesoamerican people, the
development of a pictographic writing system a "picture writing" that employed recognizable
graphic images. Thousands of pictographs survive
today, set down in books of bark paper or deer
skin. Many of these symbols depict individuals engaged in a variety of activities, each requiring an
appropriate costume.
Through these indigenous pictures as well as the
accounts of the sixteenth-century Catholic missionaries, details about many facets of Aztec culture have survived. Much credit goes to the Fran-
ciscan Fray Bernardino de Sahagún. This early
missionary learned the native language and
worked with elderly Indian informants, whose
best years predated the first contact with the
Spanish in a.d. 1519. The twelve books of Sahagún's resulting work, known as the Florentine
Codex , and now housed in the Biblioteca Medicea
Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, is the most encyclopedic coverage of Aztec pre-Hispanic society.
Another missionary, the Dominican Fray Diego
de Durán set down the laws, ordinances and statutes decreed by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma I
(a.d. 1440-1469) in a book called History of the Indies of New Spain . According to Durán, Moctezuma
set forth a group of laws before a gathering of
all the chieftains of Mexico and its allied states.
Among them were regulations on dress: "Only the
king is to wear the fine mantles of cotton embroidered with designs and threads of different colors
and featherwork. He is to decide which cloak is to
be worn by the royal person to distinguish him
from the rest." It also stipulated that "The great
The luxurious clothing of the Aztec nobility at the time
of Spanish contact in A.D 1519. The design of the cloak
worn by this Aztec lord appears to be very similar to
that of NezahualpilWs cloak. Like the ruler , this noble
also wears a similar gold earring and quetzal feather
pom-pom in his hair. The tenixyo border appears on
his cloak and also on one of the illustrated mantles.
Januaiy/Februaiy 1980 35
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The climbing of the xocotl pole,
a competition which took place
during one of the 18 monthly
Aztec ceremonies. The winner
who grabbed the image of the
god on top was awarded a
prestigious cloak.
lords, who are twelve, may wear certain mantles,
and the minor lords wear other" and . . . "The
common soldier may wear only the simplest type
of mantle and is prohibited from using any special
designs or fine embroidery that might set him off
from the rest." Finally, "The common people will
not be allowed to wear cotton clothing, under pain
of death, but only garments of maguey fiber."
Durán goes on to describe how even the
length of men's cloaks was prescribed. The com-
mon man's mantle was not to be worn below the
knee. If it reached the ankle, the penalty was
death, except in the case of a warrior wounded in
the leg, who was permitted a longer cloak until he
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An Aztec mother
instructing her
daughter to
weave on the
backstrap loom .
recovered. For the majority of the male population these cloaks were tied over the right shoulder; certain nobles and priests, however, were allowed to tie the cloak in front, under the chin. To
this stricture Sahagún adds that only the highest
ranking nobles could wear sandals, except in the
presence of the emperor, whom they should approach barefoot.
From these missionary sources, the following
rigid Aztec sumptuary laws can be defined: 1) the
common people were allowed only garments of
maguey, yucca or palm fibers; 2) only the upper
classes wore cotton clothing; 3) the decoration,
colors and amount of feather work permissible on
upper class garments were clearly specified; and
4) the manner of wearing cloaks, sandals and ornaments was tightly controlled. What emerges is a
picture of a sharply stratified Aztec society in
which the appropriate apparel for each class, even
for each individual, was precisely assigned by law.
Is this possible? Could a New World society have
succeeded in completely controlling personal
adornment, an aspect of human behavior repeatedly proved to be all but ungovernable in Old
World civilizations? Did the good friars present a
realistic version of Aztec customs and practices in
dress? Or did they oversimplify?
In order to understand the effectiveness of
Aztec sumptuary laws, it is first necessary to understand the fundamentals of Mesoamerican apparel. Unlike contemporary clothing, which is cut
and tailored, most Aztec garments consisted of
unsewn pieces of cloth, draped on the body as
loincloths, cloaks and wrap-around skirts. Slightly
more complicated garments, such as women's
blouses and men's simple jackets, were created by
sewing together the selvages of two or more pieces
of material. Throughout Mesoamerica, the size of
this basic unit of clothing construction - a single
piece of handwoven cloth - was determined by the
capacity of the backstrap loom. This simple twobeamed weaving apparatus was attached at one
end to a post or tree and at the other to the
weaver's waist. The resulting product was a relatively narrow web of material, finished on all four
sides, which could be put to use without further
processing. The manufacture of these textiles was
the sole domain of women, and it was a major aspect of their life throughout Mesoamerica. While
watching her young children, a mother aided by
her older daughters could weave the family's
clothing on the backstrap loom in the doorway of
her house. Although neither the friars' accounts
nor the codices specify how sumptuary laws affected women, they probably dressed in a style
that reflected the status of their men; the priestesses, of course, were exceptions. The sixteenthcentury sources indicate that women wove more
cloth than their own families required, creating a
surplus of textiles which became an indispensable
part of the complex economy and social structure
of Aztec society.
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The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II awarding high-status clothing and accouterments to successful warriors .
When the Spanish first arrived in a.d. 1519 the
Aztec Empire consisted of 38 provinces extending
workers than those of the tierra caliente [the coastal
hotlands]. Thus some towns gave cotton and
from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific. Each of these
others turned it into cloth."
regions was required to pay tribute on a regular
80-day schedule. This tribute then flowed to the
imperial capital, the island city of Tenochtitlan,
modern Mexico City, located on Lake Tetzcoco in
the 7,200-foot-high Valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlan, along with the lakeside cities of Tlacopan and
Tetzcoco, constituted the Triple Alliance powers
that controlled the Aztec Empire.
The imperial tribute payments included both
raw materials such as feathers, gems and unprocessed cotton as well as fabricated goods, including
woven cloth, which may or may not have been
produced in the province where its basic fiber was
grown. Cotton's role in this exchange was described by the sixteenth-century Spanish judge,
Alfonso de Zorita. He speaks of the areas which
"did not grow cotton but worked it into a very
good cloth. This excellent cloth was made by
people of the tierra fria [the colder land of the
high Central Mexican plateau] who are better
Although all classes of Aztec society wore the
same kinds of uncomplicated garments made
from handwoven webs of material, the status of
the wearer was differentiated by the fiber of the
cloth itself plus the type and degree of decoration.
The maguey fiber, assigned to the lower classes
and known as ixtli in the ancient Nahuad lan-
guage, grew in ample supply at the high elevation
of Central Mexico. However, the status fiber of the
upper classes, cotton or ichcatl, could not be grown
at elevations above 6,000 feet and had to be imported from the tropical coastal hotlands either
through trade or the elaborate system of tribute.
This supply of raw textile materials and finished
fabric through trade and tribute made possible
the variety of clothing and decorations required
by this stratified society's sumptuary laws.
But in addition to serving as wearing apparel,
textiles were also used as religious offerings, decorations for sacred effigies, temple and palace
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A merchant displaying his wares in the marketplace. He holds up a cloak with the prestigious tem^yonavîn^yê^n
the edge " border design. On the woven reed mat in front of him are valuable quetzal feathers , a necklace of precious
stones , a woman's blouse (huípil) and a sleeved colonial garment. A bound bunch of feathers is also depicted.
hangings, household items, dowry payments, marriage ceremonial accouterments, gifts for ritual
and social occasions, and wrappings for the
mummy bundles which were usually cremated. It
is also known that large, rectangular pieces of
cloth, referred to as quachtli, were used as media
of exchange. Indeed, tremendous quantities of
woven cloth must have existed in the great urban
centers of the Valley of Mexico, which at the time
of the Spanish contact had an estimated population of two-and-one-half million.
For both nobles and free-born commoners the
key to attaining the permitted degree of sartorial
splendor was their outstanding service to the
State. Although a noble was born with the right to
wear cotton clothing, the degree of its elaboration
depended on his achievements. By the same
token, a free commoner could don some of the
society's more desired attire by dint of personal
effort. For both groups the principal means of
advancement was warfare. According to Friar
Durán, this avenue of upward mobility was introduced in the fifteenth century during the reign of
the emperor Moctezuma I, great-grandfather of
Moctezuma II, Cortési adversary. During the
time of Moctezuma I, a system of ritual battles
evolved in which the Triple Alliance powers
fought neighboring city states. These famous
"Flowery Wars" or xochiyaoyotl were a regularly
scheduled series of limited engagements which
took place at a specified time and location. Their
purpose was neither conquest nor killing but
rather the capture of prisoners for human sac-
rifice. The Aztecs believed that the universe and
its natural cycles would cease to function unless
their gods were sustained with the most precious
of foods - the hearts and blood of man. As the
chosen people of the sun, the Aztecs had a cosmic
duty to maintain a continual supply of sacrificial
victims. The ritual Flowery Wars were devised to
provide some of the necessary prisoners. The
continual and far more prosaic wars of imperial
expansion further contributed to the supply.
Durán tells us that these Flowery Wars created
a kind of military marketplace in which prestigious items such as lip plugs, arm bands, shields,
Januaiy/ February 1980 39
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weapons, insignia, loincloths and cloaks could be
obtained. The emperor forbade the purchase of
this paraphernalia in the actual market and announced that the desirable status clothing and decoration would only be delivered by himself as payment for memorable deeds in battle:
Each one of you, when he goes to war to
fight, must think that he has journeyed to
a marketplace where he will find precious
stones. He who does not dare to go to war,
even though he be the king's son, from
now on will be deprived of all these things.
He will have to wear the clothing of the
common man. And in this way his cowardice, his weak heart, will be known to all.
He will not wear cotton garments. He will
not wear feathers, he will not receive flowers like the great lords . . .
The distribution of these status symbols is confirmed by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex , which
explains the organization of the military into
grades that correspond to the number of captives
taken in battle. Each rank not only had its own
flamboyant feathered warrior suit, but also a special tilmatli, the Nahautl term for a garment variously translated as cloak, cape or mantle. The
status of a warrior could be recognized on and off
the field of battle by the particular cloak he wore.
This effectively turned the tilmatli into the most
highly visible and supremely sought after status
garment in Aztec society. Small wonder that
Moctezuma I reserved the right of dispensing
it to ensure aggressive motivation in battle and
to recognize military prowess.
T he Codex Mendoza, now in the Bodleian Library
at Oxford University, England, is a sixteenthcentury colonial document named after Mexico's
first viceroy. It is an invaluable source for descriptions of Aztec daily life, including military
costumes and accompanying cloaks for six military
grades. If a warrior captured one prisoner, he received a coloxtlapilli mantle with a flower design.
The capture of two prisoners was rewarded with
an orange bordered tilmatli and a cuextlan feathered warrior costume; three prisoners with a butterfly warrior costume; four prisoners with a
nacazminqui cloak and a jaguar warrior costume;
five or six with a xopilli costume. A red tilmatli
with red and white borders was awarded to the
most famous warriors, supposedly in all cases, by
the emperor himself at great public ceremonies.
Long-distance merchants on the road. The pic to graph for a journey are the footprints. Each merchant wears a simple cloak
that is tucked up under his carrying board , the cacaxtli. The loads , reported to weigh up to 50 pounds , could be carried for
five leagues and were supported by the tumpline worn over the forehead.
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One may well inquire just how realistic a picture the preceding account presents. It can be
partially checked by the frequency of the various
tilmatli in the surviving records of tribute payments, assuming that different warrior grades reflect the military ranking system, and that the
greatest number of tilmatli mentioned would be
the type awarded to the lowest grade. In Codex
Mendozďs record of tribute sent from the 38
provinces to the capital, the coloxlapilli cloak
awarded for the capture of one prisoner is, in
fact, most prominent. But beyond that the correlation no longer holds.
It appears that not all of the mandes required
by the higher ranks were supplied by tribute. An
alternative source was trade, represented by one
distinct professional class called pochteca, While
many Aztecs engaged in trade from time to time,
this hereditary group controlled the long-distance
trade which involved caravans of porters that went
from the Valley of Mexico to the remote provinces on the Pacific or Gulf coasts. These mer-
chants exported manufactured goods and imported luxurious foreign commodities such as rare
feathers, gold dust, jade and turquoise as well as
magnificent multicolored textiles. Since the value
of the caravan's cargo sometimes invited attack,
the pochteca often had to be both merchants and
soldiers. During the reign of the emperor Ahuit-
zotl (a.d. 1486-1502), a group of these traders
was beseiged for four years in the remote Isthmus
of Tehuantepec area. By fighting valiantly they
finally extricated themselves and returned to
Tenochtitlan laden with spoils taken from their
attackers. In gratitude, the emperor gave the merchants the rights to wear certain jewels and specific designs of tilmatli. This special privilege was
limited to particular holidays, however, while the
ruling class had the right of wearing their finery
without restrictions.
As the Aztec empire expanded and became
wealthier, the need for luxury goods traded by
the pochteca increased. Their growing affluence
and importance threatened the nobles, and this
social tension prompted the rich pochteca to behave with abject humility. In order to maintain a
safe low profile, the pochteca secretly brought
their goods into the capital's warehouses by night,
often storing them under the name of a friend or
relative. In dress, the pochteca were equally discreet, wearing a patched and homely cloak for
daily business and reserving their prestigious tilmatli for specific ceremonial occasions. Only when
entertaining in the privacy of their homes did the
pochteca allow themselves to display their wealth
and position by exchanging rich gifts and beauti-
ful textiles.
In all, 57 mantle designs appear in the Codex
Magliabechiano, a sixteenth-century colonial document now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence,
Italy. Only a portion of these can be found in
other pictorial sources, which also portray additional tilmatli patterns associated with merchant
or warrior roles. Still other patterns occur in the
tribute records. From all these depictions, it is
obvious that tilmatli circulated in Aztec society
through means other than those recognized by the
official sumptuary laws. It appears that many of
these cloaks were sold in the public marketplace.
According to the glowing eyewitness accounts of
the conquistadors, highly desirable luxury items
were indeed available in the urban markets of the
Valley of Mexico. The Spaniards admired the size,
orderliness and extent of the merchandise, particularly in the marketplace of Tlatelolco, the contiguous, trade-oriented twin city of Tenochtitlan,
where as many as 25,000 people gathered each
day. Every fifth day a special market was held,
attended by 40,000 to 50,000 market goers.
Jewelry of gold and silver, precious stones, bright
feathers, fabric and clothing - every conceivable
product was offered for sale, although these
items were supposedly tightly controlled by
sumptuary laws.
According to Sahagún, even the closely
guarded tilmatli were regularly offered in a special area. He mentions "great capes, costly capes,
embroidered capes, large common capes, maguey
fiber capes and thin maguey fiber capes." Sahagún goes on to note that "the ruler took care of
directing the marketplace and all things sold," although it is highly questionable that much control
could have been exercised over such a busy,
crowded market. Other sources relate how judges
at the Tlatelolco market had the duty of maintaining order and settling disputes, without mentioning their responsibility to dictate who could
buy what status symbol. Presumably the buying
public was free to purchase what it wished, including cloaks.
Pesides sale in the marketplace, these cloaks
were distributed through other unofficial avenues.
Not only were tilmatli given as offerings at temples, but they also served as gifts at funerals and
at feasts given by merchants to fete each other.
Parents offered coyote fur capes to priests or
older warriors in charge of instructing their sons.
Inheritance also determined the distribution of
these prized cloaks. In the case of a noble youth
found drunk - a capital offense in Aztec society the hapless young man would be secretly strangled. But before his execution he could arrange to
bequeath his friends his collection of mantles
which could number up to as many as 20.
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dent that status capes were awarded not only to
high achievers but to all those who took part in
the activities, and that both of these groups winners and participants - had the right to sell
their prizes. Since such behavior clearly con-
tradicts the orthodox view that tilmatli distribution
was tightly regulated by strict sumptuary laws,
perhaps the same laxness extended to controlling
how this attire was worn.
T he sumptuary laws drew a sharp distinction
between the dress of commoners and nobles. By
implication, the lower classes wore only undecorated apparel made of coarse bast fibers, while the
nobility wore only the status fiber - cotton. The
sources, however, give contradictory d z a: in Book
10, The People y Sahagún discusses a man who sells
coarse maguey fiber capes that not only have wavy
and flower designs but other patterns as well.
Their names conjure up strange and confusing
images: "whirlpool design, as if with eyes
painted"; "with the small face"; "the one with broken chords, with husks outlined in black." These
descriptions suggest that the so-called poor and
wretched lower class Aztecs wore coarse maguey
fiber cloaks that were both colorful and varied.
The plain mantle of a common warrior. These simple , unadorned
cloaks were made of maguey , yucca or palm fiber. His loincloth
was no doubt made of the same fabric.
Clearly, tilmatli circulated far more widely and
far more freely than the sumptuary laws would
indicate. In Book 2, The Ceremonies , Sahagún describes a game connected with a feast day of Mixcoatl, the ancient hunting god of the Otomi, a
neighboring people of the Aztecs. Young Aztec
men formed a human rope to encircle deer,
coyotes, rabbits and hares in an area. The youth
who caught a deer or coyote was favored by the
Emperor with a special cape whose edges were
striped with feathers. Sahagún suggests that this
mantle could be worn if one was a captor of an
animal, but also "if one were not a captor, one
might only place [his cape] in a basket and sell it."
In the same book Sahagún discusses the festival of
the tenth month, Hueymiccailhuitl, when boys
competed to be first to scramble up a pole, the
xolotl , to grab the image of a god that had been
placed on top. A brown-striped cloak edged in
feathers was awarded to the winner. The text
points out, however, that "if one were not
captor, he might only keep one [such cape]
care, and mayhap he might sell it when he
poor or sick." From these two examples, it
such a
in his
is evi-
Moreover, Sahagún comments that maguey fiber
mantles were enhanced by washing them in a
gruel of corn dough to make them firm. When
dried and burnished, these cloaks had a high
and pleasing luster. If this reinforced cloth was
rapped, it apparently emitted a sound like a pottery rattle. Obviously the lower classes were not
too inhibited to devise ways of imitating the dress
of their betters.
Recalcitrant nobles, Durán contends, were
forced by the Emperor to wear lowly maguey
fiber capes as a form of punishment. In one instance the Emperor penalized the lords of the
conquered city of Tlatelolco for not making timely
tribute payment: "The noblemen of that city were
no longer to wear splendid mantles. From now on
they must use cloaks of maguey fiber, like people
of low rank." Similar chastisement was given out
by the Aztec ruler to his own captains, officers
and old warriors when they were badly beaten in
battle: ". . .justices were sent to the homes of the
officers to shear their hair and take their insignia
away from them. They were forbidden to wear
cotton mantles; from now on these officers were
to wear cloaks of maguey fiber like those of the
common man." This harsh behavior is in keeping
with the sharp class distinction proclaimed by the
sumptuary laws. Despite the idealized version of
these ordinances, however, the documentary
sources make it clear that not only the lower
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classes but also the nobles used maguey fiber
capes, and the latter by choice. One noble is described wearing a maguey fiber cape with an
ocelot pendant and a shining maguey fiber mantle
ornamented with designs of flattened heads. In
another instance, the last emperor Quauahtemoc
(a.D. 1520-1524), after surrendering to the
Spaniards when Tenochtitlan fell, reportedly
wrapped himself in a shining maguey fiber cloak.
Even the effigies of the great Aztec god Huitzilopochtli sometimes wore a maguey fiber cape.
During the fifth month, Toxcatl, an effigy of this
same deity was covered during the celebration
with a mantle of maguey fiber.
Since the lords and nobles could apparently
wear either cotton or maguey, their choice had to
have been based on a garment's decoration rather
than its material. For the upper classes, then, the
design appears to have been more socially significant than fabric. But whatever the fiber of the
lorďs prestigious capes, the most important of
these status garments were apparently not worn
for everyday. Sahagún reports that then the lords
wore only finely woven yucca fiber capes "... but
they always tied these garments in their usual
manner as the noble men were very circumspect
and punctilious."
Three major points emerge from this analysis
of how tilmatli were used as status symbols. First,
the maguey mantles of both nobles and lower
classes had a varied range of color and design.
Second, since the nobles were permitted to wear
cloaks of either maguey or cotton, the design
rather than the fiber must have been the critical
deciding factor for their choice, whether for social
or aesthetic reasons. Finally, everyday dress differed from the status clothing worn to mark social
distinctions on ceremonial occasions. It would fol-
low that these awesome sumptuary laws must have
been applied principally to this latter category the ritualistic and official side of Aztec life. It also
seems likely that the iron-clad control over Aztec
clothing imposed by the emperor and described
by the Spanish chroniclers was greatly exaggerated. A detailed study of the chronicles makes it
apparent that Aztec society was becoming increasingly dependent on luxury goods. In so
doing, it abandoned the frugality of earlier days, an
echo of which survived in the official severity of
the sumptuary laws. No doubt the descriptions of
these regulations, which come to us from the
contemporary Indian informants, represent an
idealized image of the military and political order
in pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan. As such, the recorded laws reflect a creed more than a reality.
In the sharply stratified Aztec society, the
ceremonial processions of noblemen adorned with
jewels, plumes and magnificent colored clothing
proclaimed their superior social position. These
nobles, replete with brightly embroidered capes
and feather ornaments and carrying delicate
flower bouquets, served as forms of symbolic
control for the State. No doubt the masses ob-
serving from the sidelines were bedazzled by this
expression of power and wealth, thus confirming
its very existence. Yet the vaunted sumptuary laws
did not actually dictate what people wore every
day but rather provided a set of rules governing
clothing used for ceremonial and ritual occasions.
This limited control corresponds to the effectiveness of similar regulations elsewhere. Through the
ages in pre-industrial stratified societies, authoritarian efforts to govern artistic expression as reflected in dress have seldom been successful and
personal adornment irrepressibly appears to be
people's favorite art.
For Further Reading on the Aztecs: Patricia
Rieff Anawalt, Pan-Mesoamerican Costume Repertory
at the Time of Spanish Contact , (University Micro-
films 76-8973, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1976), is a
detailed study of pre- Hispanic clothing; "What
Price Aztec Pageantry?" Archaeology
30(1977):226-233; The Aztecs : The History of the Indies of New Spain , translated by Doris Heyden and
Fernando Horcasitas (Orion Press, New York
1964) and Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient
Calendar , translated and edited by Fernando Horcasitas and Doris Heyden (University of Oklahoma
Press, Norman, Oklahoma 1971), are written by
Sahagûn's contemporary, the Dominican Diego
Duràn; Frances Frei Berdan, Trade , Tribute , and
Market in the Aztec Empire , (University Microfilms
76-8111, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1976), is a comprehensive coverage of the economics of preConquest Central Mexico; Nigel Davies, The Aztecs
(G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York 1974), is a political history of the Aztecs from their nomadic beginnings to rulers of the mighty New World empire; The Florentine Codex : General History of the
Things of New Spain , translated by Arthur J. O.
Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (University of
Utah and School of American Research, Santa Fe,
New Mexico 1950-1969), this encyclopedic compendium of Aztec life in 12 books was compiled
by the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary,
Fray Bernardino de Sahagün using Indian informants; Gideon Sjoberg, The Pre-industrial City , Past
and Present (The Free Press, New York 1960), for
a comprehensive discussion of complex state
societies; Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs
(Stanford University Press, Stanford, California
1961), presents a general summary of Aztec life
just before the Spanish conquest.
January/ February 1980 43
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