Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 12

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
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41726816
Accessed: 06-04-2016 14:15 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted
digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about
JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Archaeological Institute of America is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access
to Archaeology

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
Costume and Control
Aztec Sumptuaiy Laws


only what certain occupational groups must

In only wear.
wear.today's what Aside
Aside world, certain
fromfrom dress occupational
religious religious regulations
orders,orders, groups can
the the dictate
must police,
firemen, waitresses and waiters or the military,
sartorial style usually depends on whim, the pock-
etbook 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 sym-
bolized their position and set themselves apart
from the masses by accentuating particular pat-
terns of speech, manners and dress. As a visual
symbol and display of position and wealth, elabo-
rate clothing served most effectively to trumpet
social status.
To guard these prerogatives of power and to
prevent imitation by the lower classes, since ear-
liest 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 orna-
ments and multicolored garments. By the early
fourteenth century after Christ, the French Crown
admitted failure in its attempts to restrict by de-
cree her citizens' expenditures on clothes accord-
ing to class and wealth. Enterprising tailors,
cobblers and dressmakers could always be found
to satisfy the illegal demand for imitations of ex-
pensive and stylish apparel. Right up into the
eighteenth century, rulers persisted in their
futile attempts to prevent the lower classes
from copying the court.
Quauhtlatzacuilotly a lord of Tetzcoco , carries a flower
Is this irrepressible urge to adorn the person
bouquet and a smoking tube. His cream-colored cloak bears unique to the Old World and the western Euro-
the repeated design of the conch shell trumpety a fertility pean experience? Apparently not. This basic
symbol. His red loincloth is decorated with four insects , human drive can also be observed in the labora-
perhaps butterflies , and his sandals appear to be made
of jaguar skin.
tory of the New World among the well docu-

January/ February 1980 33

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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 ble for the distribution of the land according to
reputed to have tighdy controlled the dress of the needs and industriousness of each family. A
their sharply stratified society. The Aztec social surprising amount of mobility was available to
system was divided into five categories. At the top the free commoners through service to the State.
were the aristocratic lineages which included the As a result of prowess in warfare, even a man of
ruler, his relatives and other noble lines. These this class could attain a prominent position in
lords were supported by their private lands and Aztec society.
their sons were educated in special schools. Di- Below the free commoners were a group of
rectly below the ruling class were the highly spe- landless workers who maintained the estates of the
cialized artisans - those who produced luxury nobles. Since this group had no land-holding af-
goods - and the professional long-distance mer- filiation with its attendant usufruct rights, they
chants. Both of these groups enjoyed special were tied to the estates for their subsistence. The
privileges not available to the class below them. lowest class of Aztec society was the slaves who
The majority of Aztec citizens, however, were free had no access to land. Slaves owed their labor to
commoners who were organized into corporate their master who was usually a noble. A person
land-holding groups. Their elders were responsi- became a slave only through adversity which


This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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. Al-
though war captives were also occasionally en-
slaved, the majority became sacrificial victims.
The Aztecs sought to dictate through
sumptuary laws not only the fiber and ornamen-
tation 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 en-
gaged in a variety of activities, each requiring an
appropriate costume.

Through these indigenous pictures as well as the

accounts of the sixteenth-century Catholic mis-
sionaries, details about many facets of Aztec cul-
ture 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 Saha-
gún's resulting work, known as the Florentine
Codex , and now housed in the Biblioteca Medicea
Laurenziana in Florence, Italy, is the most ency-
clopedic coverage of Aztec pre-Hispanic society.
Another missionary, the Dominican Fray Diego
de Durán set down the laws, ordinances and stat-
utes decreed by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma I
(a.d. 1440-1469) in a book called History of the In-
dies 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. The luxurious clothing of the Aztec nobility at the time
of Spanish contact in A.D 1519. The design of the cloak
Among them were regulations on dress: "Only the worn by this Aztec lord appears to be very similar to
king is to wear the fine mantles of cotton embroi- that of NezahualpilWs cloak. Like the ruler , this noble
dered with designs and threads of different colors also wears a similar gold earring and quetzal feather
and featherwork. He is to decide which cloak is to pom-pom in his hair. The tenixyo border appears on
his cloak and also on one of the illustrated mantles.
be worn by the royal person to distinguish him
from the rest." It also stipulated that "The great

Januaiy/Februaiy 1980 35

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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, of death, but only garments of maguey fiber."
and the minor lords wear other" and . . . "The Durán goes on to describe how even the
common soldier may wear only the simplest type length of men's cloaks was prescribed. The com-
of mantle and is prohibited from using any special mon man's mantle was not to be worn below the
designs or fine embroidery that might set him off knee. If it reached the ankle, the penalty was
from the rest." Finally, "The common people will death, except in the case of a warrior wounded in
not be allowed to wear cotton clothing, under pain the leg, who was permitted a longer cloak until he

36 Archaeology

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
An Aztec mother
instructing her
daughter to
weave on the
backstrap loom .

recovered. For the majority of the male popula- and tailored, most Aztec garments consisted of
tion these cloaks were tied over the right shoul- unsewn pieces of cloth, draped on the body as
der; certain nobles and priests, however, were al- loincloths, cloaks and wrap-around skirts. Slightly
lowed to tie the cloak in front, under the chin. To more complicated garments, such as women's
this stricture Sahagún adds that only the highest blouses and men's simple jackets, were created by
ranking nobles could wear sandals, except in the sewing together the selvages of two or more pieces
presence of the emperor, whom they should ap- of material. Throughout Mesoamerica, the size of
proach barefoot. this basic unit of clothing construction - a single
From these missionary sources, the following piece of handwoven cloth - was determined by the
rigid Aztec sumptuary laws can be defined: 1) the capacity of the backstrap loom. This simple two-
common people were allowed only garments of beamed weaving apparatus was attached at one
maguey, yucca or palm fibers; 2) only the upper end to a post or tree and at the other to the
classes wore cotton clothing; 3) the decoration, weaver's waist. The resulting product was a rela-
colors and amount of feather work permissible on tively narrow web of material, finished on all four
upper class garments were clearly specified; and sides, which could be put to use without further
4) the manner of wearing cloaks, sandals and or- processing. The manufacture of these textiles was
naments was tightly controlled. What emerges is a the sole domain of women, and it was a major as-
picture of a sharply stratified Aztec society in pect of their life throughout Mesoamerica. While
which the appropriate apparel for each class, even watching her young children, a mother aided by
for each individual, was precisely assigned by law. her older daughters could weave the family's
Is this possible? Could a New World society have clothing on the backstrap loom in the doorway of
succeeded in completely controlling personal her house. Although neither the friars' accounts
adornment, an aspect of human behavior re- nor the codices specify how sumptuary laws af-
peatedly proved to be all but ungovernable in Old fected women, they probably dressed in a style
World civilizations? Did the good friars present a that reflected the status of their men; the priestes-
realistic version of Aztec customs and practices in ses, of course, were exceptions. The sixteenth-
dress? Or did they oversimplify? century sources indicate that women wove more
In order to understand the effectiveness of cloth than their own families required, creating a
Aztec sumptuary laws, it is first necessary to un- surplus of textiles which became an indispensable
derstand the fundamentals of Mesoamerican ap- part of the complex economy and social structure
parel. Unlike contemporary clothing, which is cut of Aztec society.

Januaiy/Februaiy 1980 37

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II awarding high-status clothing and accouterments to successful warriors .

When the Spanish first arrived in a.d. 1519 the workers than those of the tierra caliente [the coastal
Aztec Empire consisted of 38 provinces extending 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 Although all classes of Aztec society wore the
80-day schedule. This tribute then flowed to the same kinds of uncomplicated garments made
imperial capital, the island city of Tenochtitlan, from handwoven webs of material, the status of
modern Mexico City, located on Lake Tetzcoco in the wearer was differentiated by the fiber of the
the 7,200-foot-high Valley of Mexico. Tenochtit- cloth itself plus the type and degree of decoration.
lan, along with the lakeside cities of Tlacopan and The maguey fiber, assigned to the lower classes
Tetzcoco, constituted the Triple Alliance powers and known as ixtli in the ancient Nahuad lan-
that controlled the Aztec Empire. guage, grew in ample supply at the high elevation
The imperial tribute payments included both of Central Mexico. However, the status fiber of the
raw materials such as feathers, gems and unpro- upper classes, cotton or ichcatl, could not be grown
cessed cotton as well as fabricated goods, including at elevations above 6,000 feet and had to be im-
woven cloth, which may or may not have been ported from the tropical coastal hotlands either
produced in the province where its basic fiber was through trade or the elaborate system of tribute.
grown. Cotton's role in this exchange was de- This supply of raw textile materials and finished
scribed by the sixteenth-century Spanish judge, fabric through trade and tribute made possible
Alfonso de Zorita. He speaks of the areas which the variety of clothing and decorations required
"did not grow cotton but worked it into a very by this stratified society's sumptuary laws.
good cloth. This excellent cloth was made by But in addition to serving as wearing apparel,
people of the tierra fria [the colder land of the textiles were also used as religious offerings, deco-
high Central Mexican plateau] who are better rations for sacred effigies, temple and palace

38 Archaeology

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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, mar- the emperor Moctezuma I, great-grandfather of
riage ceremonial accouterments, gifts for ritual Moctezuma II, Cortési adversary. During the
and social occasions, and wrappings for the time of Moctezuma I, a system of ritual battles
mummy bundles which were usually cremated. It evolved in which the Triple Alliance powers
is also known that large, rectangular pieces of fought neighboring city states. These famous
cloth, referred to as quachtli, were used as media "Flowery Wars" or xochiyaoyotl were a regularly
of exchange. Indeed, tremendous quantities of scheduled series of limited engagements which
woven cloth must have existed in the great urban took place at a specified time and location. Their
centers of the Valley of Mexico, which at the time purpose was neither conquest nor killing but
of the Spanish contact had an estimated popula- rather the capture of prisoners for human sac-
tion of two-and-one-half million. rifice. The Aztecs believed that the universe and
For both nobles and free-born commoners the its natural cycles would cease to function unless
key to attaining the permitted degree of sartorial their gods were sustained with the most precious
splendor was their outstanding service to the of foods - the hearts and blood of man. As the
State. Although a noble was born with the right to chosen people of the sun, the Aztecs had a cosmic
wear cotton clothing, the degree of its elaboration duty to maintain a continual supply of sacrificial
depended on his achievements. By the same victims. The ritual Flowery Wars were devised to
token, a free commoner could don some of the provide some of the necessary prisoners. The
society's more desired attire by dint of personal continual and far more prosaic wars of imperial
effort. For both groups the principal means of expansion further contributed to the supply.
advancement was warfare. According to Friar Durán tells us that these Flowery Wars created
Durán, this avenue of upward mobility was intro- a kind of military marketplace in which prestigi-
duced in the fifteenth century during the reign of ous items such as lip plugs, arm bands, shields,

Januaiy/ February 1980 39

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
weapons, insignia, loincloths and cloaks could be the field of battle by the particular cloak he wore.
obtained. The emperor forbade the purchase of This effectively turned the tilmatli into the most
this paraphernalia in the actual market and an- highly visible and supremely sought after status
nounced that the desirable status clothing and dec- garment in Aztec society. Small wonder that
oration would only be delivered by himself as pay- Moctezuma I reserved the right of dispensing
ment for memorable deeds in battle: it to ensure aggressive motivation in battle and
Each one of you, when he goes to war to to recognize military prowess.
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,
T he Codex Mendoza, now in the Bodleian Library
even though he be the king's son, from
at Oxford University, England, is a sixteenth-
now on will be deprived of all these things.
century colonial document named after Mexico's
He will have to wear the clothing of the
common man. And in this way his cowar- first viceroy. It is an invaluable source for de-
dice, his weak heart, will be known to all. scriptions of Aztec daily life, including military
He will not wear cotton garments. He will costumes and accompanying cloaks for six military
not wear feathers, he will not receive flow- grades. If a warrior captured one prisoner, he re-
ers like the great lords . . . ceived a coloxtlapilli mantle with a flower design.
The distribution of these status symbols is con- The capture of two prisoners was rewarded with
firmed by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex , which an orange bordered tilmatli and a cuextlan feath-
explains the organization of the military into ered warrior costume; three prisoners with a but-
grades that correspond to the number of captives terfly warrior costume; four prisoners with a
taken in battle. Each rank not only had its own nacazminqui cloak and a jaguar warrior costume;
flamboyant feathered warrior suit, but also a spe- five or six with a xopilli costume. A red tilmatli
cial tilmatli, the Nahautl term for a garment vari- with red and white borders was awarded to the
ously translated as cloak, cape or mantle. The most famous warriors, supposedly in all cases, by
status of a warrior could be recognized on and off 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.

40 Archaeology

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
One may well inquire just how realistic a pic- In all, 57 mantle designs appear in the Codex
ture the preceding account presents. It can be Magliabechiano, a sixteenth-century colonial docu-
partially checked by the frequency of the various ment now in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence,
tilmatli in the surviving records of tribute pay- Italy. Only a portion of these can be found in
ments, assuming that different warrior grades re- other pictorial sources, which also portray addi-
flect the military ranking system, and that the tional tilmatli patterns associated with merchant
greatest number of tilmatli mentioned would be or warrior roles. Still other patterns occur in the
the type awarded to the lowest grade. In Codex tribute records. From all these depictions, it is
Mendozďs record of tribute sent from the 38 obvious that tilmatli circulated in Aztec society
provinces to the capital, the coloxlapilli cloak through means other than those recognized by the
awarded for the capture of one prisoner is, in official sumptuary laws. It appears that many of
fact, most prominent. But beyond that the corre- these cloaks were sold in the public marketplace.
lation no longer holds. According to the glowing eyewitness accounts of
It appears that not all of the mandes required the conquistadors, highly desirable luxury items
by the higher ranks were supplied by tribute. An were indeed available in the urban markets of the
alternative source was trade, represented by one Valley of Mexico. The Spaniards admired the size,
distinct professional class called pochteca, While orderliness and extent of the merchandise, par-
many Aztecs engaged in trade from time to time, ticularly in the marketplace of Tlatelolco, the con-
this hereditary group controlled the long-distance tiguous, trade-oriented twin city of Tenochtitlan,
trade which involved caravans of porters that went where as many as 25,000 people gathered each
from the Valley of Mexico to the remote prov- day. Every fifth day a special market was held,
inces on the Pacific or Gulf coasts. These mer- attended by 40,000 to 50,000 market goers.
chants exported manufactured goods and im- Jewelry of gold and silver, precious stones, bright
ported luxurious foreign commodities such as rare feathers, fabric and clothing - every conceivable
feathers, gold dust, jade and turquoise as well as product was offered for sale, although these
magnificent multicolored textiles. Since the value items were supposedly tightly controlled by
of the caravan's cargo sometimes invited attack, sumptuary laws.
the pochteca often had to be both merchants and According to Sahagún, even the closely
soldiers. During the reign of the emperor Ahuit- guarded tilmatli were regularly offered in a spe-
zotl (a.d. 1486-1502), a group of these traders cial area. He mentions "great capes, costly capes,
was beseiged for four years in the remote Isthmus embroidered capes, large common capes, maguey
of Tehuantepec area. By fighting valiantly they fiber capes and thin maguey fiber capes." Saha-
finally extricated themselves and returned to gún goes on to note that "the ruler took care of
Tenochtitlan laden with spoils taken from their directing the marketplace and all things sold," al-
attackers. In gratitude, the emperor gave the mer- though it is highly questionable that much control
chants the rights to wear certain jewels and spe- could have been exercised over such a busy,
cific designs of tilmatli. This special privilege was crowded market. Other sources relate how judges
limited to particular holidays, however, while the at the Tlatelolco market had the duty of main-
ruling class had the right of wearing their finery taining order and settling disputes, without men-
without restrictions. tioning their responsibility to dictate who could
As the Aztec empire expanded and became buy what status symbol. Presumably the buying
wealthier, the need for luxury goods traded by public was free to purchase what it wished, in-
the pochteca increased. Their growing affluence cluding cloaks.
and importance threatened the nobles, and this Pesides sale in the marketplace, these cloaks
social tension prompted the rich pochteca to be- were distributed through other unofficial avenues.
have with abject humility. In order to maintain a Not only were tilmatli given as offerings at tem-
safe low profile, the pochteca secretly brought ples, but they also served as gifts at funerals and
their goods into the capital's warehouses by night, at feasts given by merchants to fete each other.
often storing them under the name of a friend or Parents offered coyote fur capes to priests or
relative. In dress, the pochteca were equally dis- older warriors in charge of instructing their sons.
creet, wearing a patched and homely cloak for Inheritance also determined the distribution of
daily business and reserving their prestigious til- these prized cloaks. In the case of a noble youth
matli for specific ceremonial occasions. Only when found drunk - a capital offense in Aztec society -
entertaining in the privacy of their homes did the the hapless young man would be secretly stran-
pochteca allow themselves to display their wealth gled. But before his execution he could arrange to
and position by exchanging rich gifts and beauti- bequeath his friends his collection of mantles
ful textiles. which could number up to as many as 20.

Januaiy/ February 1980 41

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
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 undeco-
rated 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 bro-
ken 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.
Moreover, Sahagún comments that maguey fiber
mantles were enhanced by washing them in a
The plain mantle of a common warrior. These simple , unadorned
cloaks were made of maguey , yucca or palm fiber. His loincloth gruel of corn dough to make them firm. When
was no doubt made of the same fabric. dried and burnished, these cloaks had a high
and pleasing luster. If this reinforced cloth was
rapped, it apparently emitted a sound like a pot-
Clearly, tilmatli circulated far more widely and tery rattle. Obviously the lower classes were not
far more freely than the sumptuary laws would too inhibited to devise ways of imitating the dress
indicate. In Book 2, The Ceremonies , Sahagún de- of their betters.

scribes a game connected with a feast day of Mix- Recalcitrant nobles, Durán contends, were
coatl, the ancient hunting god of the Otomi, a forced by the Emperor to wear lowly maguey
neighboring people of the Aztecs. Young Aztec fiber capes as a form of punishment. In one in-
men formed a human rope to encircle deer, stance the Emperor penalized the lords of the
coyotes, rabbits and hares in an area. The youth conquered city of Tlatelolco for not making timely
who caught a deer or coyote was favored by the tribute payment: "The noblemen of that city were
Emperor with a special cape whose edges were no longer to wear splendid mantles. From now on
striped with feathers. Sahagún suggests that this they must use cloaks of maguey fiber, like people
mantle could be worn if one was a captor of an of low rank." Similar chastisement was given out
animal, but also "if one were not a captor, one by the Aztec ruler to his own captains, officers
might only place [his cape] in a basket and sell it." and old warriors when they were badly beaten in
In the same book Sahagún discusses the festival of battle: ". . .justices were sent to the homes of the
the tenth month, Hueymiccailhuitl, when boys officers to shear their hair and take their insignia
competed to be first to scramble up a pole, the away from them. They were forbidden to wear
xolotl , to grab the image of a god that had been cotton mantles; from now on these officers were
placed on top. A brown-striped cloak edged in to wear cloaks of maguey fiber like those of the
feathers was awarded to the winner. The text common man." This harsh behavior is in keeping
points out, however, that "if one were not such a with the sharp class distinction proclaimed by the
captor, he might only keep one [such cape] in his sumptuary laws. Despite the idealized version of
care, and mayhap he might sell it when he was these ordinances, however, the documentary
poor or sick." From these two examples, it is evi- sources make it clear that not only the lower

42 Archaeology

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms
classes but also the nobles used maguey fiber jewels, plumes and magnificent colored clothing
capes, and the latter by choice. One noble is de- proclaimed their superior social position. These
scribed wearing a maguey fiber cape with an nobles, replete with brightly embroidered capes
ocelot pendant and a shining maguey fiber mantle and feather ornaments and carrying delicate
ornamented with designs of flattened heads. In flower bouquets, served as forms of symbolic
another instance, the last emperor Quauahtemoc control for the State. No doubt the masses ob-
(a.D. 1520-1524), after surrendering to the serving from the sidelines were bedazzled by this
Spaniards when Tenochtitlan fell, reportedly expression of power and wealth, thus confirming
wrapped himself in a shining maguey fiber cloak. its very existence. Yet the vaunted sumptuary laws
Even the effigies of the great Aztec god Huit- did not actually dictate what people wore every
zilopochtli sometimes wore a maguey fiber cape. day but rather provided a set of rules governing
During the fifth month, Toxcatl, an effigy of this clothing used for ceremonial and ritual occasions.
same deity was covered during the celebration This limited control corresponds to the effective-
with a mantle of maguey fiber. ness of similar regulations elsewhere. Through the
Since the lords and nobles could apparently ages in pre-industrial stratified societies, authorita-
wear either cotton or maguey, their choice had to rian efforts to govern artistic expression as re-
have been based on a garment's decoration rather flected in dress have seldom been successful and
than its material. For the upper classes, then, the personal adornment irrepressibly appears to be
design appears to have been more socially signifi- people's favorite art.
cant than fabric. But whatever the fiber of the
lorďs prestigious capes, the most important of For Further Reading on the Aztecs: Patricia
these status garments were apparently not worn Rieff Anawalt, Pan-Mesoamerican Costume Repertory
for everyday. Sahagún reports that then the lords at the Time of Spanish Contact , (University Micro-
wore only finely woven yucca fiber capes "... but films 76-8973, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1976), is a
they always tied these garments in their usual detailed study of pre- Hispanic clothing; "What
manner as the noble men were very circumspect Price Aztec Pageantry?" Archaeology
and punctilious." 30(1977):226-233; The Aztecs : The History of the In-
Three major points emerge from this analysis dies of New Spain , translated by Doris Heyden and
of how tilmatli were used as status symbols. First, Fernando Horcasitas (Orion Press, New York
the maguey mantles of both nobles and lower 1964) and Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient
classes had a varied range of color and design. Calendar , translated and edited by Fernando Hor-
Second, since the nobles were permitted to wear casitas and Doris Heyden (University of Oklahoma
cloaks of either maguey or cotton, the design Press, Norman, Oklahoma 1971), are written by
rather than the fiber must have been the critical Sahagûn's contemporary, the Dominican Diego
deciding factor for their choice, whether for social Duràn; Frances Frei Berdan, Trade , Tribute , and
or aesthetic reasons. Finally, everyday dress dif- Market in the Aztec Empire , (University Microfilms
fered from the status clothing worn to mark social 76-8111, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1976), is a com-
distinctions on ceremonial occasions. It would fol- prehensive coverage of the economics of pre-
low that these awesome sumptuary laws must have Conquest Central Mexico; Nigel Davies, The Aztecs
been applied principally to this latter category - (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York 1974), is a politi-
the ritualistic and official side of Aztec life. It also cal history of the Aztecs from their nomadic be-
seems likely that the iron-clad control over Aztec ginnings to rulers of the mighty New World em-
clothing imposed by the emperor and described pire; The Florentine Codex : General History of the
by the Spanish chroniclers was greatly exagger- Things of New Spain , translated by Arthur J. O.
ated. A detailed study of the chronicles makes it Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (University of
apparent that Aztec society was becoming in- Utah and School of American Research, Santa Fe,
creasingly dependent on luxury goods. In so New Mexico 1950-1969), this encyclopedic com-
doing, it abandoned the frugality of earlier days, an pendium of Aztec life in 12 books was compiled
echo of which survived in the official severity of by the sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary,
the sumptuary laws. No doubt the descriptions of Fray Bernardino de Sahagün using Indian infor-
these regulations, which come to us from the mants; Gideon Sjoberg, The Pre-industrial City , Past
contemporary Indian informants, represent an and Present (The Free Press, New York 1960), for
idealized image of the military and political order a comprehensive discussion of complex state
in pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan. As such, the re- societies; Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs
corded laws reflect a creed more than a reality. (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California
In the sharply stratified Aztec society, the 1961), presents a general summary of Aztec life
ceremonial processions of noblemen adorned with just before the Spanish conquest.

January/ February 1980 43

This content downloaded from on Wed, 06 Apr 2016 14:15:14 UTC
All use subject to http://about.jstor.org/terms