America’s: sumtuary laws


Migrations Map

Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws


Sumptuary Laws

Five Social categories: Aristocratic Lineages; highly specialized artisans; free commoners; landless workers; slaves


tameme or porters

“The common people will not be allowed to wear cotton clothing, under pain of death, but only garments of maguey fiber.”

from 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.


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 two- beamed 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 as- pect of their life throughout Mesoamerica.


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

tierra fria [the colder land of the high Central Mexican plateau]

tierra caliente [the coastal hotlands]

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 language, grew in ample supply at the high elevation of Central Mexico.

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

textiles were also used as religious offerings, decorations for sacred effigies, temple and palace hangings, household items, dowry payments, marriage ceremonial accouterments, gifts for ritual and social occasions, and wrappings for the mummy bundles which were usually cremated.

large, rectangular pieces of cloth, referred to as quachtli, were used as media of exchange


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 sacrifice


Flowery Wars created a kind of military marketplace in which prestigious items such as lip plugs, arm bands, shields, 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


tilmatli, the Nahautl term for a garment variously translated as cloak, cape or mantle

warrior captured one prisoner, he received a coloxtlapilli mantle with a flower design; 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 warrior

pochteca: 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 merchants exported manufactured goods and imported luxurious foreign commodities such as rare feathers, gold dust, jade and turquoise as well as magnificent multicolored textiles

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



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