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The costume of the Inca

By Eric R. Harris, November 2002

The costume of the Inca may be taken as typical of that of all the Andean and coastal peoples: at any rate it is the only one on which we have rather full information, and in imperial days it was enforced on the conquered populations. Grave finds, and modelled and painted figures on Moche pottery vessels, give us some data on coastal garb, and we may be sure that each group and each period had it's peculiarities of dress. Naturally more and warmer clothing was worn in the highlands than on the coast. In the earliest periods the inhabitants of the former region had only wool, the latter only had cotton, but at a very early time trade made both materials available everywhere. These textile fibres, wool from the highlands and cotton from the coast- especially the former- were practically state monopolies and were regularly distributed to the people. Clothing everywhere consisted of woven or knitted textiles, and these were always worn whole, never cut or tailored; they were held together by large metal pins. The garments of the common people were of rather coarse textiles.


The ubiquitous (being everywhere) breechcloth was the man's indispensable garment, and while at work in hot weather he often wore nothing else. The strip of cloth passed between the legs, the two ends passed over and hanging from the belt to front and back. Ordinarily a sleeveless tunic, generally made of a broad piece of cloth doubled and sewn together along the edges, the bottom being left open, was also worn. This made a shirt of inverted sack shape in the fold of which a slit was made for the neck, and incomplete sewing left two holes for the arms; it reached almost to the knees. A large cloak, worn over the shoulders with two corners tied in front, completed the man's attire; sometimes this passed under one arm to leave the latter free for activity. Breechcloth, tunic, and cloak were all of cloth woven with coloured ornamentation, the latter of course varying in quality according to the man's social position. Inca sandals were of untanned llama hide, but sandals of other materials such as braided fibre are known archaeologically from some regions. Every man wore between his cloak and tunic small bag in which he carried his coca leave, amulets, and other such small personal effects; the bag filled the role of the modern man's pockets.

Hair styles varied greatly from tribe to tribe, but Inca men cut their hair, leaving it short in front, medium long behind, and confined it with either the utilitarian sling or with a narrow ornamented woven band.


Women wore a one-piece dress that combined skirt and blouse, reaching to the ankles and bound at the waist by a long, wide, woven, and ornamental sash. At the top, it reached to the neck, the upper edges fastened together over the shoulders by long pins and passing under the arms at the sides. Like all garments, this dress was a large rectangular piece of woven cloth, merely wound around the body. The analogue of the man's cloak was a large mantle, worn over the shoulders and fasted at the front with a large straight metal pin known as topo. These pins of copper, silver, or gold, have large heads of various types, sometimes in the form of animal or human figures, but most commonly ending in a large, thin, circular, or semicircular disk, the sharp edges of which could be used as a knife. The women wore sandals and head bands similar to the men's, and also a large piece of folded cloth on the head. They did not cut their hair but parted it in the middle and wore it hanging down the back; it was cut, however, as a sign of mourning.


War paint was used by the Inca, and other methods of face-painting were used at other times, but apparently only on special and ceremonial occasions. Black was the mourning colour, but red and purple were used at other times. The practice was probably a universal one throughout the Andean area, but naturally little information concerning it is available. Tattooing was practised at certain times and places on the coast but there are no records of it in the highlands.

The male decorated himself; Inca women wore only necklaces and shawl-pins. Probably all men wore earplugs of some type, but the nobility, Inca by birth or privilege, wore such great plugs in orifices in the ear-lobes that this class was generally referred to by the chroniclers as Orejones, Big Ears. These insignia were up to two inches (5 cm.) in diameter and made of various materials- those of men of higher rank being of course of gold or silver. Men also wore metal bracelets, the metal disks were awarded as medals for military bravery, and necklaces were made of teeth of slain enemies. On ceremonial and festive occasions, of course, they also donned gaudy head-dresses, collars of feathers, and similar regalia.


At the end of the appointed time, the candidates selected as worthy of the honors of their barbaric chivalry were presented to the sovereign, who condescended to take a principal part in the ceremony of the inauguration. He began with a brief discourse, in which, after congratulating the young aspirants on the proficiency they had shown in martial exercises, he reminded them of the responsibilities attached to their birth and station, and, addressing them affectionately as children of the Sun, he exhorted them to imitate their great progenitor in his glorious career of beneficence to mankind. The novices then drew near, and, kneeling one by one before the Inca, he pierced their ears with a golden bodkin; and this was suffered to remain there till an opening had been made large enough for the enormous pendants which were peculiar to their order, and which gave them, with the Spaniards, the name of orejones. This ornament was so massy in the ears of the sovereign that the cartilage was distended by it nearly to the shoulder, producing what seemed a monstrous deformity in the eyes of the Europeans, though, under the magical influence of fashion, it was regarded as a beauty by the natives. When the operation was performed, one of the most venerable of the nobles dressed the feet of the candidates in the sandals worn by the order. They were then allowed to assume the girdle or sash around the loins, corresponding with the toga virilis of the Romans, and intimating that they had reached the season of manhood. Their heads were adorned with garlands of flowers, which, by their various colors, were emblematic of the clemency and goodness that should grace the character of every true warrior; and the leaves of an evergreen plant were mingled with the flowers, to show that these virtues should endure without end.


The Inca asserted his claims as a superior being by assuming a pomp in his manner of living well calculated to impose on his people. His dress was of the finest wool of the vicuna, richly dyed, and ornamented with a profusion of gold and precious stones. Round his head was wreathed a turban of many colored folds, called the llautu, with a tasselled fringe, like that worn by the prince, but of a scarlet color, while two feathers of a rare and curious bird, called the coraquenque, placed upright in it, were the distinguishing insignia of royalty. The birds from which these feathers were obtained were found in a desert country among the mountains; and it was death to destroy or to take them, as they were reserv4ed for the exclusive purpose of supplying the royal head gear. Every succeeding monarch was provided with a new pair of these plumes, and his credulous subjects fondly believed that only two individuals of the species had ever existed to furn9ish the simple ornament for the diadem of the Incas.


But what most attracted his attention was the woollen cloth of which some of their dresses were made. It was of a fine texture, delicately embroidered with figures of birds and flowers, and dyed in brilliant colors.


During this time, the Inca empire stretched across Peru, the mass of the population was overwhelming. The clans were found in the highlands, the lowlands, and the coastal region. In order that one might not get lost, the over garment or tunic was given an insignia expressing the native's origin- whether that be on the coast or in the mountains. It should be noted that while the population of the Incas was very high, one might think that cultural characteristics of the Inca tribe as a whole were the same, but this is far from the truth. Each clan was a culture in itself, it was a subculture of the main culture. From religion to clan names (totemic names) and language, it was very different. One thing, however, remained constant, and that was the that every clan in the tribe worshipped huaca (art-crafts that were made to be dedicated to the metaphysics and theology of the gods, both good and bad). It should also be noted that Incan religion supported the worship of both animate and inanimate objects and perceived them to be gods. In terms of the Sun god and the Moon god, people of the mountain highlands would worship the Sun god because it was colder in the highlands at night, but when the sun came out during the day it was warmer. In terms of the moon god, clans of the coastal regions and lowland regions would worship this god because it was hot in the jungles and by the coast, and by night, it would get cooler.

RELIGION: what can be learned?

In terms of religion, it should be said that everything, both living and dead were worshipped through arts and crafts. The pictures that amass Incan architecture, art, the body, and crafts bring to light the fact that this group and the many clans were very religious.


It is not fully known how the Incas view themselves, however it is known that the Incas had various classes. For example, weavers, children of the sun, nobles, and royalty. Most of the women learned how to weave at a very young age. Their positions were inevitable. The Incan society, in terms of hierarchy, was complex, much like a government. There were people in higher positions than others and they all knew their position in the line of order. However, royalty ruled all.