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Mayan culture and their sense of fashion

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Earlier this year, I travelled to Quintana Roo in south-east Mexico. The Yucatán Peninsula encompasses three Mexican states, separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, and even covers a portion of the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala! It is known for its white sandy beaches, luscious rainforests and astonishing ‘cenotes' (subterranean water-filled caves). But Yucután is much more than a ‘paradise destination’. It is home to the ancient Maya people. Scattered with Mayan ruins, this state takes us back to Pre-Columbian civilisations.

So, what is the Maya civilisation?

The Maya civilisation can be dated back to as early as the pre-classic period (c 2000 BC to 250 AD) from the first social and agricultural developments of the Maya people. Maya cities later appeared around 750 BC and by 500 BC already held monumental architecture, such as the ancient citadel - Tikal - in the rainforests of northern Guatemala.

Do Maya people still exist today?

Of course! There are about six million Maya people alive today. The Yucatecs have a population of 300,000 and are one of the largest and most important groups. According to the government of Guatemala there are 21 formally recognised Mayan languages and eight within Mexico’s territory alone. When I asked Quintana Roo locals whether they spoke the Maya language, their overall response was that Maya was their first language and so they felt more comfortable speaking in Maya rather than in ‘castellano’ (Spanish). Asking a local Maya woman whether she could understand me, she reassured me that she could not tell the difference between Spanish accents since her parents only speak Maya! The millennial Maya are a bilingual generation.

So, what defines a Mayan’s sense of fashion? And do Maya people still wear their traditional clothes today?

Whereas Maya women continue to be proud of their cultural heritage and wear traditional Mayan clothing when the occasion arises; millennial Maya men are apparently more hesitant in doing so out of fear of ‘ladino’ or ‘mestizo’ harassment.

What did the ancient Maya wear?

Ancient Maya fashion sense is most easily distinguished by body modifications, bright colours and a use of natural materials. However, despite archaeologists finding jewellery and body modifications from ancient Maya burials, they struggled to find evidence of textiles and materials. The hot weather of Maya regions would have caused these fabrics to decay and disintegrate relatively quickly. There is also minimal representation of the lower classes in Maya art and therefore we do not know much about them or their clothing. Mayans had a variety of outfits for different occasions such as for dance, battles, sports, religious ceremonies or just for every day.

Distinctive clothing was clearly an important part of Maya culture, especially for the ruling elite who would use clothes as a way of showing their importance. As depicted by images on carved monuments, the gentry wore big, lavish outfits with feathered headdress, jade jewellery and sometimes even clothes made from jaguars: the dangerousness of the animal being most symbolic of their power.

How were their outfits specifically designed for certain occasions?

For dance, they made sure to dress decoratively and distinctively with large feathers and valuable jewels. A light wooden frame would be used to attach the ornamental outfits so as to keep their weight lighter.

In conflict, they wore padded mantels made from cotton, leaves and animal skin. Those captured by Maya people would be left naked as a sign of their humiliation and loss of freedom.

The ballgame required a highly customised outfit so as to avoid injury if any were hit by the hard rubber ball. They wore a horse-shaped yoke around their waist, padding on their knees and elbows and, most importantly, a headdress to show which side each player was on.

Even everyday clothes were still unique. Men would wear loincloth (short skirts) and women huipil (long skirts) sometimes paired with “quechquemitl” (a shawl-like garment). Women would also wear jewellery consisting of bracelets, anklets, necklaces and earrings. Their hair was almost never worn down. They would instead keep it tied up with bands of fabric and long feathers.

What I find most admirable about traditional Mayan ‘fashion sense’ is how nature both inspired and supplied (in material) the creation of their unique pieces. Mayans certainly knew how to make the most of what they had and turn it into beauty. If there is one Mayan trend that we continue to perpetuate today it is dressing to impress.

Giacinta McNaught-Davis

Industry Trends Director

Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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