South America: history of dress

The vast South American continent is a study in geographic extremes, including the Amazon Basin, the world’s largest tropical rain forest; the Andes, the second-highest mountain range in the world; and the coastal deserts of Peru and northern Chile, which are among the driest areas in the world. The ecology of these regions (and such areas as the hot, humid Atlantic coast and cold, wet Patagonia) naturally influenced the dress of the aboriginal South Americans. Dress includes clothing, footwear, hairstyles and headdresses, jewelry, and other bodily adornment (for example, piercing, tattooing, and painting).

Amazon Basin and the Coasts

Europeans landing on the coast of what is now Brazil in the early sixteenth century encountered such groups as the Tupinambás, who wore feathered headdresses, and early drawings of natives wearing feathers became shorthand for Native Americans. Feathered or porcupine quill headdresses are still worn by most Amazonian groups for daily or fiesta use. Clothing is often minimal, no more than a penis string for males and a cache-sexe (G-string) for females, along with body painting or tattoos, and/or earplugs or earrings, bead, fiber, animal bone or tooth necklaces, bandoleers, armbands, leg bands, and bracelets, nose and lip and hair ornaments—an infinite variety of ornamentation—and, among Kayapo and Botocudo males of Brazil, ternbeiteras, large circular wooden discs inserted in the lower lip.

Men in a traditional Tarabuco dance. The Tarabucan dancers show off their Incan inspired tunics, worn over wide-legged cropped pants. The draped hats cover up long hair worn in a braid, an ethnic marker. Typical open-toed sandals are worn on the feet.

Men in a traditional Tarabuco dance. The Tarabucan dancers show off their Incan inspired tunics, worn over wide-legged cropped pants. The draped hats cover up long hair worn in a braid, an ethnic marker. Typical open-toed sandals are worn on the feet.

Such groups as the Colombian and Ecuadorian Cofáns, Ecuadorian Záparos, and Ecuadorian and Peruvian Shuars and Achuars once wore bark-cloth tunics, wrap skirts or (for women) dresses tied over one shoulder. Cofán males now wear knee-length tunics of commercial cotton cloth.

Indigenous women in Saraguro, Ecuador. These Ecuadorian women display traditional, yet contemporary clothing that includes wide-brimmed woven hats with markings indicating ethnicity and pinned anakus, or wrap-around skirts and Ilikllas, or mantles. Decorative earrings and necklaces adorn them.

Indigenous women in Saraguro, Ecuador. These Ecuadorian women display traditional, yet contemporary clothing that includes wide-brimmed woven hats with markings indicating ethnicity and pinned anakus, or wrap-around skirts and Ilikllas, or mantles. Decorative earrings and necklaces adorn them.

Among such groups in the western Amazon as the Cashinahuas (Dwyer, 1975) and Shipibos in Peru, and the Kamsás in Colombia loom-woven cotton clothes are worn, usually long tunics (often called kushma) for men, and tubular skirts for women. Both male and female Ashaninkas (Campas), and Matsigenkas (Machiguengas) wear tunics, however.

Males among the Shuars and Achuars of Peru and Ecuador wear a woven cotton wrap skirt, while the women wear a body wrap that is tied over one shoulder. The male wrap is sometimes tied with a woven belt with dangling wefts of human hair (Bianchi et al. 1982). Contacted tribes in Amazonia may choose to wear traditional dress at times and Euro-American dress when visiting towns or if they have been Christianized.

Such groups as the now culturally extinct Onas of Tierra del Fuego, the cold, southern tip of South America near Antarctica, had no weaving, but wore fur robes, hats, and moccasins.

The Andean Countries

The countries that once constituted the Inca Empire (much of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and part of northern Argentina) are significant for several reasons. The first is that the Pacific coastal deserts have resulted in the preservation of organic material including mummy bundles with cadavers completely dressed. Other archaeological artifacts, such as realistic ceramics portraying dressed humans, combined with the Spanish conquistadores’ and other historical accounts allow us to reconstruct the dress of ancient peoples. It is possible to generalize about the myriad local and historical highland and coastal dress styles, which can be referred to overall as Andean. First, the main fibers, dyes, and many technical features of later dress were in use by the Common Era. Fibers, handspun and handwoven on simple stick or frame looms, included New World cotton and camelid (llama, alpaca, vicuna, and wanaku). Myriad dyes were used to great effect, including Relbunium and cochineal (red to purple), indigo (blue to black), and a number of plants that gave yellow. Garments for the wealthy or high ranking were often adorned with embroidery, feathers, beads, and gold or silver discs. Second, pre-Hispanic garments were variations of the square or rectangle, and they were woven to size using virtually every technique known to modern Euro-American weavers. Jewelry varied by sex, age, and rank.

Third, textiles were four selvage, meaning all four edges were finished before the piece came off the loom. It is rare to find a cut pre-Hispanic Andean garment; tailoring came with the Spanish. Fourth, cloth was highly valued and exchanged or sacrificed at major life-cycle events and religious rituals. Dress carried heavy symbolic weight and indicated age, gender, marital status, social, political, religious, economic rank, and ethnicity.

The Peruvian Coast

By the time of the Paracas culture (c. 600-175 B.C.E.) on the south coast of Peru, male ritual attire consisted of garments that were typical of the coast until the Spanish Conquest in 1532: headband or turban, waist-length tunic (sometimes with short, attached sleeves) or tabard, breechcloth or kiltlike wrap skirt, mantle, and sometimes sandals, and a small bag, usually used to hold coca leaves. Paracas dress was consistent in terms of size, shape, and patterning, but varied in terms of decoration. Many Paracas garments, for example, were elaborately embroidered and many garments had added fringes, tabs, or edgings (Paul 1990).

Coastal male tunics and tabards had vertical warps and neck slits, while women’s tunics were worn with the warp horizontal, with stitches at the shoulders and a horizontal neck opening (Rowe and Cohen 2002, p. 114). Women also wore a mantle. Male garments from the Chimu culture (c. C.E. 850-1532) of the north coast were sometimes woven in matched sets with identical weave structures and motifs on the tunic, breechcloth, and turban (Rowe 1984, p. 28).

For all the coastal cultures, jewelry differed by gender and rank and could include neckpieces, pectorals, bracelets, crowns, nose rings, and earplugs of copper, silver, gold, Spondylus shell, turquoise, feathers, and combinations of these materials, including the magnificent jewelry excavated from the royal tombs of Sipán of the Moche culture (c. C.E.100-700).

Inca Dress

Before the Spanish arrived, the Incas, spreading from their center in Cuzco, Peru, between c. 1300 and 1532, reigned over a vast empire. Mandating that conquered groups maintain their traditional clothing, headdress, and hairstyle allowed the Incas to identify and control them.

Highland dress differed from that of the coast. Garments were generally woven of camelid hair because of the cold. Inca garments had a distinctive embroidered edging combining cross-knit loop stitch and overcasting, with striped edge bindings on finer textiles (called qumpi, often double-faced tapestry) and solid bindings on plainer ones (awasqa) (Rowe 1995-1996, p. 6). Cloth was important, even sacred, to the Incas, who burned fine clothing as sacrifices to the sun (Murra 1989 [1962]).

Inca women wore an ankle-length square or rectangular body wrap called an aksu in the southern part of the empire and anaku in the north. It was wrapped under the arms, then pulled up and pinned over each shoulder with a tupu, a stickpin made of wood, bone, copper, or—for higher status women—silver or gold. The tupus were connected with a cord with dangling Spondylus shell pendants. A chumpia, or wide belt with woven pattern, held the aksu shut at the waist.

Next came a lliklla, a mantle, held shut with another stickpin (t’ipki; later also called tupu), and an istalla, a small bag for coca leaves. Some females wore headbands known by wincha, their Spanish name, and some upper-class women wore nanaqas, a type of head cloth (Rowe 19951996).

Male garments included the unku, a sacklike, sleeveless, knee-length tunic, ayakolla, a mantle, a wara (breech-cloth), ch’uspa (coca leaf bag), and a llautu (headwrap). Inca noblemen wore large gold paku, earplugs that distended their lower earlobes, inspiring the Spanish to call them orejones (big ears). Both sexes wore usuta, hide or plant-fiber sandals (Rowe 1995-1996).

Peruvian couple in native dress. The man wears a cotton tunic, or kushma, and a traditional chullo hat. The woman wears a short jacket and a pollera skirt.

Peruvian couple in native dress. The man wears a cotton tunic, or kushma, and a traditional chullo hat. The woman wears a short jacket and a pollera skirt.

The Aymara-speaking chiefdoms of the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano deserve mention, as their region was known for extensive camelid herds and fine textiles (Adelson and Tracht 1983). Some pre-Hispanic-style garments are still worn by both Quechuas and Aymaras including belts, mantles, tunics, ch’uspas, and aksus, but for Aymara females on the altiplano, the emblematic gathered skirt, tailored blouse, shawl, and bowler hat are more recent.

The Spanish Conquest

The Spanish introduced new tools for cloth production (treadle looms, carders, spinning wheels), new fibers (sheep’s wool and silk), and new fashions. Soon after the conquest, upper-class male natives were wearing combinations of Inca and Spanish clothes: an Inca unku with Spanish knee breeches, stockings, shoes, and hat (Guaman Poma). The Spanish first insisted that native people wear their own dress, but after the great indigenous rebellions of the 1780s, the government of Peru prohibited the wearing of the headband, tunic, mantle, and other insignia of the Incas including jewelry engraved with the image of the Inca, or sun. Fine Inca qumpi unku, however, continued to be made and worn well into the colonial period (Pillsbury 2002).

Warrior tomb in Sipán, Peru. For coastal cultures in Peru, jewelry was an important indicator of rank, as indicated by the gold, silver, and copper ornamentation found in this lord's tomb.

Warrior tomb in Sipán, Peru. For coastal cultures in Peru, jewelry was an important indicator of rank, as indicated by the gold, silver, and copper ornamentation found in this lord's tomb.

Although poncho-like garments were worn before the Spanish conquest, most males wore tunics sewn up the sides. The first reference to the open-sided poncho by that name came from a 1629 description of the Mapuches (Araucanians) of Chile (Montell 1929, p. 239).

Contemporary Andean Indigenous Clothing

Traditional Andean dress in the early twenty-first century is a mixture of pre-Hispanic and Spanish colonial styles. Dress still indicates ethnicity, and in Peru use of the chullu (knitted hat with earflaps) by males and montera (Spanish flat-brimmed hat) by females denotes indigenous identity, with variations in the hats indicating the wearer’s community. In Bolivia and Ecuador, a variety of hats indicate ethnicity and among three Ecuadorian groups (the Saraguros, Canars, and Otavalos), and one Bolivian (the Tarabucos), one ethnic marker for males is long hair worn in a braid. The Tarabucos are also known for their unique helmetlike hat (Meisch 1986).

In several communities—for example Q’ero in Peru (Rowe and Cohen 2002), the Chipayas in Bolivia, and the Saraguros in Ecuador (Meisch 1980-1981)—males still wear versions of the Inca tunic, while the females of Otavalo, Ecuador, wear dress that is the closest in form to Inca women’s dress worn anywhere in the Andes (Meisch 1987, p. 118). Throughout northern Ecuador, indigenous females of many ethnic groups still wear the anaku, now a wrap skirt, handwoven belt, lliklla, sometimes a tupu, and distinctive hat, while males wear ponchos and felt fedoras.

In the Cuzco, Peru, region, males wear the chullu, the poncho, and sometimes handwoven wool pants, or Euro-American style dress, while women are more conservative and wear short jackets and sometimes vests over manufactured blouses and sweaters, and pollera with llikllas, skirts with handwoven belts held shut with a tupu, or safety pin. In many communities, women still pride themselves on their ability to weave fine cloth using pre-Hispanic technology.

In the Ausangate region south Cuzco, such small differences in the women’s dress as the length of their pollera and the presence of fringe on their monteras indicates residence (Heckman 2003, pp. 83-84).

In the Corporaque region (southern Peru), the women’s dress (vests, hats, gathered skirts), while quite European in form except for their carrying cloths, is elaborately machine-embroidered in small workshops (Fe-menias 1980, p. 1). Although the technology is European, the importance of dress as an ethnic marker is Andean. Throughout the Bolivian, Peruvian, and Ecuadorian Andes, many indigenous people wear usuta, sandals made from truck tires, but in northern Ecuador, alpargatas, handmade cotton sandals, are worn.

Although Colombia has a small indigenous population, groups in two major highland regions maintain distinctive dress styles. The Kogis (Cágabas) and Incas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Atlantic coast wear long, cotton belted tunics over tight pants, and a small, round hat, cotton and pointed for the former, flat-topped fiber or cotton for the latter. Men also carry a mochilas, a cotton bag for their coca leaves and lime gourd. Women wear a garment that resembles the aksu, which is wrapped around the body, tied over one shoulder, and fastened at the waist with a belt.

After the Spanish conquest, the Páezes of southwestern Colombia developed a unique dress, abandoning simple cotton wraps. The most distinctive features of male dress are a short, wool, poncho-like garment, and a wool wrap skirt. Throughout the Andes, children usually wear a wrap skirt until they are toilet trained; then they wear traditional dress like the adults. Native people continue to use indigenous dress to define themselves as ethnic communities, and to combine pre-Hispanic and European technologies in the manufacture of their clothing.

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