Ancient Mesoamerican Clothing

by Carmen Caelen


Ancient Mesoamerican clothing was more than just a means to cover the body, it was a symbol of social class and an element used to highlight beauty and ethnic identity.  For Prehispanic cultures, the use of clothing and adornment was a fundamental part of social, political, and religious dynamics.  In addition to providing markers of status, gender, and profession, one of the main roles clothing and bodily adornment played in Mesoamerica was to position individuals, and even entire cultures, within a spatial and temporal context.  In other words, the characteristics of the garments and ornaments used by Prehispanic people were specific to a certain region, culture, and time period.

Although the study of ancient clothing and bodily adornment is quite complicated for archaeologists since many of these elements are rarely found in the archaeological record, there are sources that have allowed scholars to reconstruct many of these practices.  In the specific case of Mesoamerica, since Prehispanic clothing was made from plant fibers which don’t preserve well archaeologically, very few original items have been recovered.  Most of the information available comes from other sources like murals, figurines, codices, and ethnohistorical documents.  The variety of regional styles can be identified to some degree, as well as the materials, colors, and use of each piece.

The dress codes of ancient Mesoamerica were regulated by very strict rules determined by a rigid social stratification.  Nobles, priests, and military officials held the highest positions and were easily distinguished by their clothing and adornments.  The clothing of Mesoamerican elites was decorated with colorful feathers, precious stones, shells, and other intricate ornaments.  Their outfits also included elaborate headdresses and exquisite jewelry which further contributed to their ostentatious displays of status.

When the Spanish arrived, they were surprised by the highly developed variety of ancient Mesoamerican clothing styles, textiles, and bodily adornments.  Many European chroniclers made detailed descriptions all of the different garments used by indigenous groups as well as the many ways in which they decorated their bodies.

The Spanish corregidor[1], Gabriel de Rojas, described the clothing worn by the indigenous population of Cholula with great detail:

[Men’s] costume in peace time was a tilmatl, or square white cotton cloth knotted at the right shoulder, and a narrow [loin] cloth, and shoes like the canvas sandals used by the ancients . . . the women wore a highly painted cotton underskirt down to the foot, and on this were diverse square borders and paintings that they call nahua, and over the petticoat [the women wore] huipiles similar to a sleeveless surplice [long clerical outer garment] with its hems or borders embroidered in colored cotton with a fringe of rabbit fur and embellished with duck feathers for effect. These huipiles have two square “shields” [escudos], one on the breast and the other one on the back, that were colorfully embroidered with diverse motifs such as birds, fish, and animals[2]

Rojas also describes the textile production activities that went on in Cholula, making a distinct mention of the use of dyes in the process:

…they were particularly good dyers of whatever color, and they had much business dying wool thread in diverse colors to make rich huipiles and valuable tilmas; they make thread from rabbit and hare fur and wool that maintains its color perfectly until worn out.[3]

Threads for weaving were obtained by stretching and twisting the plant fibers.  In the beginning this process was done by hand and later on tools were invented to make the job easier.  Due to the fact that actual textiles are very rarely found in the archaeological record (the case of La Garrafa mentioned above is a one-of-a-kind find), the material evidence used to identify textile production includes spindle whorls or malacates, bone artifacts such as pins, needles, and awls, and perforated sherds.  Archaeologically, the most commonly found tool is the malacate or spindle whorl.  “Spindle whorls found in archaeological contexts can be used to infer the kinds of fibers spun.  Mesoamerican spindle whorls are generally baked clay disks each with a center hole that are used in hand-spinning as counter-weights on a wooden spindle. They function to maintain rotational inertia on the spindle while raw fiber is twisted into thread.”[2]


Visit Cholula with an archaeologist and learn more about spindle whorls and ancient clothing:



[1] A corregidor was the equivalent of a governor in Spanish colonies, particularly in territories with a high indigenous population.

[2] Gabriel de Rojas cited in McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 40).

[3] Gabriel de Rojas cited in McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 41).

[4] McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 42).