Before the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards in the 1500s, the life of an indigenous women, from birth to death, was largely occupied with the sole production of weaving garments for herself and her family, as well as ceremonial clothes for use in the temples and for tribute (Cordry 5). The huipil is considered to be one of the most influential aspect of women’s clothing in ancient times, which is still worn today in Guatemalan and Mexican.
The present essay seeks to interpret and decipher the meaning of a contemporary huipil blouse displayed at the Penn Museum Collections, by exploring popular designs and patterns found in the ancient Maya and contemporary Maya textile representations. Ancient Maya Huipiles In Mesoamerica, rarely have any textiles remains been recovered, for this reason, there has been extensive research done on other artifacts that display ancient clothing. Those artifacts consists of images found on relief sculptures, altars and stelae, wall paintings, small terracotta figures, and manuscripts (Holsbeke and Montoya 22).
Since ancient depictions found on these artifacts portray the upper class more frequently, more is known about what the clothing elites would have worn than textiles the common people would have dressed in. However, there are still numerous depictions of huipiles, where we can learn more about the textiles, designs and the purpose of these garments. In order to better understand the significance of the contemporary Maya huipiles, we must first acquire knowledge of the ancient textiles that gave way to this form of garment. The ancient Maya huipil is considered to be the female tunic of the Classical period (A.
D. 100-900), marked as having a relatively loose fitting and untailored sleeveless garments, sewn together by rectangular units of cloths. In contrary to the contemporary hupil, ancient hupiles are often looser and go beyond the waist line, extending to ankle-length. “Huipil” comes from the Nahualt language (Aztecs), and the word has been adopted in Spanish to refer to this type of garment. It is important to note that the Classical Maya word for this type of ancient blouse is unknown and also has no acceptable English translation, instead the word “huipil” is widely used in its place (Looper and Tolles 2).
Although the Classical word is unknown, there is a collection of contemporary words found in Mayan dialects that reference the huipil such as po’t in K’iche’, klab’j or kolob’ in Mam, k’u’il or chilil in Tzotzil and k’ubor lektan in Yucatec (Looper and Tolles 3). In these references, we also find the practice of weaving symbolically tied with women identity. According to Fray Toribio de Motolonia, on the seventh day when a child was given their name, the new born was also given a symbol tied to their gender identity.
For example, if it was a male child, they would put an arrow in his hand. If it was a female child, a spindle and a weaving stick was given in hopes of the child would become a good spinner and a better weaver (Cordry and Cordry 6). Another example of this identity appears in the Codex Mendoza, where it describes that at the age of five, girls were allowed to hold the spindle, at the age of six, they began to learn how to spin, and a few years later they began to weave (Hendon 363). From birth to death, women during this time where concerned with weaving beautiful, well-made textiles.
In order to make the ancient hupil, the Pre-Hispanic Maya loom was used which consisted of a simple back-strap or belt loom, similarly to what is now used by contemporary Maya. One important site that has yielded a substantial amount of textile fragments from the ancient Maya was located at the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza, Yucatan (Looper and Tolles 8). In this site, it was evident that the ancient Maya were skilled in a variety of techniques, including embroidery, tapestry, weft pile, wrap-float patterning, and brocading (Coggins and Shane 143).
In addition to the complexity of decoration, the application of paint and embedded expensive feathers and pearl beads were also a medium used to decorate textiles. Elite women were responsible for the production of garments that were sent as tribute to the ruler, but they also had to produce the best garments for their families. In doing so, elite women who mastered the techniques in creating elaborate and complex designs were greatly valued and highly respected (Hendon 356).
Huipiles were traditionally made out of cotton and this correlates with the archeological fragments that have been recovered from the Late Classic period found in Pinuela Cave, Chiapas. Ancient Maya women had two natural types of cotton to work with, one white and the other light brown both of which were commonly dyed. Maya women also worked with maguey in addition to cotton (Looper and Tolles 8). The ancient depictions of the huipiles found in Maya art, predominately represent elite women wearing this type of garments in ceremonial contexts.
Based on monumental hieroglyphic texts and iconography, it is evident the huipil appear in conjunction with rituals of bloodletting and the experiences of visions or contact with the ancestors, accession to the throne, presentation of costume, and performance of sacred dance (Looper and Tolles 21). It is likely that huipiles with elaborated embellishments enhanced the importance of these ritual and ceremonial scenes. When further exploring through the literature on ancient Maya hupiles, it is evident that an abundance of patterns, designs, and embellishments were used to heighten the messages being portrayed.
By far, the most common motifs found on ancient Maya huipil representations is the use of flowers in a quatrefoil shape. According to Luther and Tolles, this shape is represented in one third of monumental examples, and is often depicted evenly across the huipil in a unified composition (18). The quatrefoil has a symmetrical shape which forms the overall outline of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter. The corners of the ancient quatrefoil have been found to come in rounded or squared shapes and sometimes the shape is manipulated to nfix elements within the outlines.
The meaning of this motif is not clear besides the representation of a flower, however there are depictions where archeologists believe the quatrefoil represents the opening of the cosmic central axis at the crossroads of the four cardinal directions, representing the passageway between the celestial and the underworld (Looper and Tolles 19). For example, in Olmec art, the quatrefoil and half-quatrefoil were used to represent the mouth of a crocodilian earth-monster that symbolized the entrance to the underworld (Holsbeke and Montoya 96).