Mayan society was a complex and multi-ethnic society where different city states interacted with each other. The civilisation reached its zenith during what is known as its Classic Period between 250AD and 900AD.
The society itself was hierarchical which means that it was divided into various classes. It was ruled by kings and the position of a king was hereditary. The king was assisted by the nobles and the remaining population consisted of the commoners who indulged in a variety of professions. Depending on the social status, Mayan clothing varied from one group of people to the other.
Mayans wore elaborate headdresses as part of their head gear, the use of such headdresses was limited to the nobility Read more about the Mayan Headdresses >>
The history of Mayan clothing can be traced back to the Pre-Classic Times when the foundations of the Mayan civilisation were laid down. It was during this time that the class structure of the Mayan society was established and religious teachings were first assimilated. These conventions and customs, including those related to Mayan clothing, became firmly established during the Classic Period of the civilisation. These customs included reserving certain types of clothes and certain colours only for the people of the nobility and the members of royalty. These customs were also followed by the later civilisations such as the Aztecs.
Mayans naturally used different kinds of clothing for men and women. The most essential element of Mayan clothing for men was a kind of breech-clout which was between eight and ten feet long and ten inches wide. This was used as loincloth and wrapped around the waist repeatedly before being passed between the legs. Men of nobility often decorated loincloth with feather-work on the ends. Some depictions of Mayans also show them wearing a pati which was a large, square-shaped piece of cloth decorated according to the social status of the wearer. It was usually tied around the wearer’s shoulder and could also be used to sleep in.
Mayan clothing for women often included a skirt which was worn with or without a sleeveless, a poncho-like tunic which today is known as “huipil”. The skirts could be either tied with a belt or knotted in place with the “huipil” worn over the skirt. While all women decorated their skirts, women from the noble families had more scope of decoration since they had greater freedom of displaying their wealth. Sometimes, in place of skirt, a folded piece of cloth tied around the torsos was the preferred garment. According to Bishop Diego da Landa, this cloth was known as “manta”. Other than these basic articles of Mayan clothing for women, women also made use of different kinds of dresses. For instance, one dress consisted of a full-length tunic that was sewn up the sides.
The most common materials used for ancient Mayan clothing were cotton, bark cloth, and hemp fibre. It has also been suggested that bark cloth was mainly reserved for ritual clothing. Mayans had access to two different types of cotton. One was white and the other one was brown. The brown cotton was known as “cuyuscate”. It was common to dye both these cotton types using plant and animal sourced dyes. Common dyer colors included green, purple, blue, black, and red. The clothing of elite women also included expensive feathers and pearl beads.
Mayan clothing for public events was more elaborate and exuberant than Mayan clothing for everyday life. Public events mainly included a performance of various rituals or ceremonial duties. Mayan clothing for the ruling elite during these public events consisted of large and lavish outfits decorated with feathers and various precious stones which reflected their high status in society. Important elements of these outfits included feathered headdresses, jade jewelry, and clothing made from the skin of various animals, particularly jaguars.
Singing and dancing were essential elements of Mayan public life. This included religious ceremonies, festivals, and even wars. It was common to use large costumes made of jade and feathers for these ceremonies. These costumes were also often decorated with exotic materials of a variety of sort. For dancing, participants usually wore large back-racks with long feathers. Mayan clothing and costumes for dancing events were designed to be light despite their elaborate nature so that it was easy to move around and dance.
War was an important part of Mayan culture since different city-states often clashed with each other. Elaborate preparations were made for war and this also included Mayan clothing for warriors and fighters. Special kinds of protective clothing was developed as means of defense. Essential elements of this Mayan clothing for warriors and fighters included padded mantle often made from twisted cotton or thick leaves, animal skin, and large shields decorated with feathers and animal hide. Warriors often also wore elaborate headdresses and jewelry, although the costumes of Mayan warriors were not as elaborate and embellished as the costumes of later Aztec warriors.
Footwear was an important part of the overall Mayan clothing and just like the dresses, the quality and decoration of the footwear depended on the social status of the wearer. The most common form of footwear were sandals that had straps with two thongs, one of which went in the space between the first and the second toe while the other one went between the third and fourth toe. People from lower classes used simple sandals made of un-tanned animal skin while people form elite classes used more elaborate footwear.
Mayan civilisation had a rich culture and a hierarchical society where rights and privileges of the people depended on their social status. This was true for Mayan clothing as well since people from the lower classes were not allowed to wear certain types of clothes reserved for royalty and the nobility, just like medieval Europe. People from the upper classes made use of elaborate and lavish clothing along with expensive headdresses and precious stones. Footwear of the elite was also more decorated while the common people went about in simple clothing and footwear. Different kinds of Mayan clothing were reserved for different public events.