The central plaza at Coban, Guatemala, with a small market in full swing by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum
Anne Maudslay on "A Glimpse at Guatemala"
"The prettiest party we met on the road was a company of young girls clad in embroidered huipils and bright-coloured enaguas (their upper and lower garments), each with a big flat basket on her head, and a bare well-shaped brown arm raised to support it.
They fluttered up the hill towards us laughing and chattering, their well-poised erect figures swaying with a fine freedom of motion. Surely no prettier sight was ever seen, with its sylvan surroundings and the sunlight glistering through the trees."
Group of women and children on a plaza near Lake Atitlan, Guatemala by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum
With these words, Anne Maudslay described in her book "A Glimpse at Guatemala" the wonder at the sight of native costumes in the highlands of that country. She liked them so much, that she tried several times to buy some, although she always found difficulties to do so.
Maya whistle. Am,L.6 (600-900 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
The Maudslays were able to admire the marvellous Maya cloths of the end of the nineteenth century. However, the Maya have a long and rich dress tradition that goes back to Prehispanic times.
Weaving woman. Am1978,15.734.b (1900-1980 A.D.)British Museum
In Mesoamerica, textiles were made from cotton in backstrap looms that women wrapped around their waist. Textiles could also be made of barkcloth or animal skin.
Yaxchilan lintel 15 (770/770)British Museum
With these techniques, the Maya created wonderful textiles like the huipil that Kabak Xook, the queen of Yaxchilan, is wearing.
Huipils are loose-fitting tunics made of two or more pieces of fabric with openings for the head and arms, still worn today.
Rollout photograph of the Fenton Vase, Late Classic Maya, 600-800ADBritish Museum
These textiles were so important that tribute was sometimes paid with blankets.
Cast of the Sculpted Bench, Temple 11, Copan: detail. Am1923, Maud.15 (1880-1930 A.D.) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum
In addition to these textiles, the people from the elite wore elaborate ornamentation that complemented their dress.
Jadeite earspool. Am1950,Loan03.1 (0-250 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
Jade was one of the most common materials. It was highly appreciated as it could only be obtained from a distant and unique location: the Motagua river in Southeast Guatemala.
Shell ornament (400/800)British Museum
Shell, obtained from the Pacific and the Caribbean, was a common material for ornaments too. The red coloured Spondylus princeps was one of the most valued shells.
Teeth and copper beads. Am1938,1021.431 (250-1500 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
Other uncommon materials were used in jewellery, such as these teeth beads. Metals were not introduced in the Maya area until the Postclassic period (900-1500 CE)
Macaw in Copan (2017) by Ana SomohanoBritish Museum
Embellishing the head
Feathers of the most beautiful birds from the jungle were also used, both in textiles and jewels.
They were very important in the elaboration of enormous and outstanding headdresses. Imagine wearing such a huge thing on your head!
Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum
Although the body is mostly eroded, in this relief of House C from the Palace in Palenque you can appreciate one of these large headdresses.
Photograph of Copán taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum
In Maya art, sometimes these headdresses also incorporated the name of their user. In Copan's Altar Q, the founder of the dynasty is wearing a headdress with his name, K'ihnich Yax K'uk' Mo'.
Segmentation of K'ihnich Yax K'uk' Mo's name (ca.1898 (Altar: 8th Century)) by GMP teamBritish Museum
Thus, we know that it is K'ihnich Yax K'uk' Mo', the first ruler of the Copan's dynasty, who is confronting the last ruler of it, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat.
Head figurine. Am,L.617 (600-900 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
Hairstyle was essential too
The hair, always tidy, was groomed with resin or other binding products. The stepped appearance was one of the most common hairstyles, accomplished by shaving the sides.
Head figurine. Am,L.110 (250-900 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
Transforming the body
Corporal modification was also part of Maya attire. The Maya, for instance, modified the shape of their head. This was achieved with pressure on the cranium of very young children using tablets or bandages. The result were elongated heads that followed the ideal of beauty.
Effigy vase. Am1938,1021.338 (250-900 A.D.) by MayaBritish Museum
The body was decorated too. Sometimes body painting transformed the skin. Other times it was a more permanent modification, in the form of scars resulting from the cutting or branding of the skin, known as scarifications.
Head figurine. Am1844,0720.733 by TotonacBritish Museum
Teeth were also decorated, changing their shape and adding stone inlays to them.
Sisal (henequén) halter. Am1986,07.199British Museum
Subjugation of the Maya: the Hacienda henequenera
After the Conquest, the Maya area continued to be important for their textile production. During the nineteenth century the Yucatan peninsula flourished thanks to the production of henequén, an agave fibre used to make a wide range of cloths.
El henequén (1974) by Fernando Castro PachecoBritish Museum
The production of henequén was made in Haciendas, where the Maya population worked in slavery.
Tzotzil doll. Am1978,15.717 by Tzotzil MayaBritish Museum
A new identity: textiles today
Nowadays, the Maya population uses traditional dress as a means of identity construction.
Maya huipil. Am1977,11.3 (20th Century) by K'iche' MayaBritish Museum
Small variations in costumes link their users to certain ethnic groups or places of provenience.
Textile workshop in Oaxaca (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum
Although backstrap looms are still in use, floor looms have been incorporated in the elaboration of indigenous textiles.
Modern shell pendant decorated with ancient style motifs. Am1978,15.102 (20th Century) by MayaBritish Museum
Dress and ornamentation are also a wonderful tool for Maya groups that today build a creative bond with their past. As an example, here is a beautiful modern shell pendant where the craftsman has reinterpreted Maya writing and iconography.
All images ©British Museum unless otherwise marked
Text and image selection: Ana Somohano Eres, Project Curator: Americas
Thanks to: Claudia Zehrt, Eva Jobbova and other British Museum Maya Project collaborators