Honorific Vestimentery System

Expressing Social Stratification Through Fashion

On the previous page we learned about the structured social system that helped make the Aztec such an efficient civilization. In order to reinforce these class distinctions and maintain the proper balance of the universe the Aztec used what is called an “Honorific Vestimentery System”. This is a system of tightly regulated laws known as “sumptuary laws” which attempted to dictate not only what certain people could wear, but also how they wore it.

Sumptuary Laws

Here are some interesting laws that helped to solidify social stratifications: (Anawalt)

1.) Only nobles were allowed to wear garments made of cotton. Cotton was difficult to produce had to be transported from far away regions.

2.) Commoners had to wear garments made from rough rigid maguey, yucca, or palm fibers. This material was much more plentiful although not nearly as comfortable as cotton.

3.) The right to wear jewelry was generally restricted to nobility. Even within the noble classes however, decoration of jewelry, headpieces, feather work, and other things were specifically laid out by the emperor.

4.) The right to wear sandals in public was restricted to the upper classes. Even in the upper classes though it was very bad to be wearing sandals in the presence of superiors. Nobody would wear sandals in the presence of the emperor.

Ranks and Costumes of Warriors


The success and rank of Aztec warriors was displayed through the military costumes they were rewarded with. There were specific ceremonies dedicated to awarding successful warriors with their new military garb and titles. Sometimes these rewards were presented by the tlatoani himself. (Townsend 196). The success valor and rank of warriors was signaled in many different ways. Warriors were allowed to paint there face certain colors, cut their hair certain ways, wear certain full body suits known as tlahuiztli, and were given special priveldges based off of how many prisoners they had captured and how successful they had been on the battlefield. (Anawalt 29, 55) Many sources record many different ways warriors are rewarded. Here are some of the known examples:

Hair – When a boy entered school, his hair was completely cut. As he grew older the boy would grow out a tuft on the back of his head. By the time the boy was 15 years old the tail of hair would be long. This indicated he had not yet captured a prisoner. Once the boy went to war, if he captured a prisoner all by himself then the hair would be cut off. If he captured a prisoner with the help of others then only one side would get shaved off. If after 3 battles a warrior still had not captured anyone, he would be called a cuexpalchicacpol, or “youth with a baby’s lock”

IMG_01201 Captive Warrior – 
This would be a young man who took his first captive without the help of others. His long hair would be cut to indicate he is a true warrior. He carries a maquahuitl, which is a wooden club made of finished oak with obsidian or flint stone blades. This warrior was given a chimalli, or shield, with no decoration. Now that he is officially a warrior he can wear a manta. This is a cape like cloak worn by warriors for ceremonial purposes. For his first captive this warrior receives a manta decorated with flowers. (Carrasco 145)

2 Captive Warrior –This warrior has now earned the highly valued right to wear sandals on the battlefield. As warriors continue to gain more captives they are awarIMG_1405ded the right to more full body costumes known as tlahuiztli. For low numbers of captives such as two or three, there were several different costumes that could be awarded. This Cuextlán costume is the most commonly depicted costume in the Codex Mendoza for warriors capturing two prisoners.(Anawalt 55-57) It has a cone shaped cap and feathered suit with black parallel lines. He also receives a new manta in order to signify his bravery. This new manta is orange with a red border instead of his previous flower pattern.

3 Captive Warrior – This warrior who is now quite a veteran will most likely be awarded with another full body costume of some sort. He is also awarded a new manta. This cloak will be encrusted with fine jewels. Warriors of this class also wear a “fire butterfly” device on their backs during special ceremonies.

IMG_14004 Captive Warrior – This warrior is now eligible to be awarded a place in some of the Aztec’s most prestigious orders. As a Jaguar or Eagle warrior he is respected throughout the realm for his bravery and ferocity. He is awarded a full body encasing jaguarIMG_1394 or eagle costume with his head emerging from the mouth of the animal. His new manta has two stripes of black and orange with a border in honor of capturing 4 prisoners in battle.


Pictures: (top to bottom)

1.) Codex Mendoza (Townsend 195)

2.) Codex Mendoza, Courtesy of Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Reiff Anawalt (Carrasco 146)

3.) Codex Mendoza, Courtesy of Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Reiff Anawalt (Carrasco 147)

4.) Courtesy of Bettmann/Corbis (Tuerenhout 162)

5.) Museo del Templo Mayor, Mexico City (Moctezuma 74)

Further Reading / Sources

            Anawalt, Patricia. “Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws.”Archaeology 33, no. 1, 33-43. This source will be useful because it talks about the function of clothing and adornment as an honorific vestimentary system as opposed to a fashion system. It talks about the different scales of warrior and what each level was allowed to wear based on status.


Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. Indian Clothing before Cortés: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. This book will be useful because the entire book is pertinent to my subject. Most of my material I have to sift through in order to find the one chapter that I can utilize.


Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. “The Emperors’ Cloak: Aztec Pomp, Toltec Circumstances.” American Antiquity 55, no. 2, 291-307. doi:10.2307/281648. This source will be helpful because it goes in depth on one aspect of Aztec adornment. It talks about certain textiles that were worn as capes and their symbolic importance.


Anawalt, Patricia. “What Price Aztec Pageantry.” Archaeology 30, no. 4, 226-33. This source is extremely useful. Anawalt breaks down the function of pageantry in Aztec warfare and also discusses the different functions that dress and costume served in Aztec culture compared to Spanish culture.


Anawalt, Patricia. “THE XICOLLI: “Godly Jackets” of the Aztecs.”Archaeology 29, no. 4, 258-65. This source goes in depth about one particular item of clothing and its importance, who wears it, what it means and more.


Carrasco, David, and Scott Sessions. Daily Life of the Aztecs: People of the Sun and Earth. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. There is a section in this book titled The Ranks and Costumes of Warriors.


Moctezuma, Eduardo. The Aztecs. New York City: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989. In this book I will use chapter four which focuses on Social and Economic Organization. The section on military expansion, the army, and armaments talks about the different costumes awarded to warriors.


Pohl, John M. D. Aztec Warrior, AD 1325-1521. Oxford, UK: Osprey Pub., 2001. This book will be really helpful due to its clear table of contents. I will be able to easily find information on the topics I am looking for. I am most excited about the section on dress and distinction.


Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.This book will be useful for its section on warriors. It talks a lot about the warrior culture in Aztec society and how important it was to them. It talks about how they viewed and treated warfare much differently then european societies.




Turenhout, Dirk R. The Aztecs New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2005. There are a few chapters in this book that I will be able to utilize. The chapter on social structure and organization will be useful as well as the chapter that discusses warfare, warriors, and general aspects of Aztec Warfare that are unique.