How did the Incas dress?

Clothing in the Inca era is described today thanks to the finds of mummies and burials. They were also described by chroniclers in the 16th century, especially through the didactic drawings of the famous chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala. The main materials were cotton, alpaca and vicuña wool. The quality of the garment allowed the social class and even the ethnic origin of the man and woman to be differentiated.

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Inca clothing and social class

Clothing in the Inca era, in addition to its functionality, was valued for social and ethnic differentiation in the social pyramid of the empire.

The most used materials throughout the empire were cotton and alpaca wool. In addition, the elite could wear garments made of vicuña wool, the finest material.

The clothing items also had embroidery and headdresses that symbolized a person’s social hierarchy. Only the elite could wear fine clothing and religious symbols that symbolized their power.

In Inca society, Inca women were excellent weavers. They all had to knit for the family. The most skilled ones could do it for the Inca elite. The making of clothing was even part of paying a tribute to the Inca government.

The garments were diverse but they all had a geometric and animal-shaped decoration. These figures and shapes have been maintained to this day thanks to the findings of mummies that still preserved their clothing.

The clothing of the lower social class was simple in decoration. On the other hand, the clothing of the elite stood out for its engravings, insignia, fringes and even decorations with exotic bird feathers.

In the Inca culture, clothing was highly valued. Both the upper class and the lower class took very good care of their appearance and clothing. 

Mujer inca
Woman at Inti Raymi

Inca clothing and ethnicity

The vast Inca empire or empire of Tahuantinsuyo (empire of the four regions) covered thousands of kilometers, in regions of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile and Argentina.

Such an immense territory produced a differentiation in each region, which was represented by customs, religion, language and, of course, by clothing.

Thus, for the coastal ethnic groups, the most used raw material was cotton. On the other hand, in the Andean areas, the raw material was alpaca wool and, for the elite, vicuña wool.

The ethnic groups of the Amazon regions had simple clothing made of cotton. However, it also stood out for its beautiful decoration with bird feathers and even wild animal skins.

The decoration of the clothing represented the worldview and religion of each ethnic group. The Incas were conquerors but they respected cultural aspects such as the religion and customs of each subject people.

Inca men’s clothing

In Inca society, men were distinguished by clothing appropriate for agricultural tasks. Thus, common men wore a poncho or onka (generally made of alpaca). They also used the ‘vacolla’ or cape.

As underwear they used a type of tail cover also called ‘wara cicoy’.

The footwear was the sandal made of llama wool. On top they wore a kind of Andean shirt or tunic. At the bottom there was a skirt that allowed flexibility when doing the work.

Likewise, men could use accessories such as combs (made of thorns), ear muffs, copper pins in their clothing as well as gold and silver accessories, which were intended for the clothing of the upper social class or even as an offering to the sun god. (Inti)

Emperador inca

The clothing of Inca women

The women dressed simply. What differentiated them from one another according to their class was not the complexity of the preparation but the quality of the fabrics with which the dresses were made.

The typical clothing of women in Inca society consisted of a rectangle-shaped tunic, which covered the head and fell down the back to the waist and could even reach the ankles.

They also wore an Andean t-shirt made of cotton. The skirts were cinched at the waist with a bow. Footwear also consisted of sandals. In addition, women could carry different decorations such as earrings or gold or silver accessories (for the upper social class).

The hair was generally long and well-groomed. The women covered their hair with cloaks, called ñañaca. The hair of the upper social class used to be in small braids as a symbol of good care.

Just like men’s clothing in the Inca empire, the raw material used to make the garment was the most important thing because it differentiated the lower social class and the upper social class.

Thus, only women of the Inca elite could wear garments made of vicuña wool. Their ornaments were made of silver, gold or precious stones.

The clothing of the Inca emperor

The clothing of the Inca emperor was the finest and with decoration characterized by exotic bird feathers, vicuña wool cloaks as well as gold scepters, silver insignia and more.

The Inca used a bird feather, a tassel, a crown of gold sheets (the famous mascaipacha), a scepter also made of gold, a shield with a pennant, bracelets of precious stones, a mantle of vicuña wool, fringes with ornaments that symbolized royalty, sandals as well as a tunic or t-shirt.

The coya, or official wife of the Inca, for her part, wore a head covering or ñañaca made of vicuña fiber, a mantilla or lliclla also made of this fine material, a fringe or tapapo, a tunic, sandals, flowers, and a bracelet or earrings. of gold.

The Inca’s clothing was made by the most skilled weavers in the empire. Even for the famous acllas or virgins that the ‘acllahuasi’ inhabited.

The importance of these garments was such that some were made only to be offered to the Inca gods (they were burned as part of the ritual). Only the Inca could wear fine clothing with symbols that represented his powerder.

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