The Andean Tunic, 400 BCE–1800 CE

March 7–October 16, 2011


Extremely successful empire builders, the Inkas set out from the mountain capital of Cuzco in the 1430s and managed to conquer much of northwestern South America in the hundred years before the arrival of the Spaniards. An amazingly disciplined people whose focused sense of organization and control can be seen even in their tunics, the Inkas inherited many of the highland traditions for the making of textiles. Numerous examples of Inka tunics, discovered in burial sites throughout the large territory they conquered, still exist. Others, never buried but rather worn after the Spanish conquest, have also survived. Although smaller than the earlier Wari tunics, Inka examples share such features as fine tapestry weave, preference for camelid hair fiber (the Inkas used the hair of all of the camelids—alpaca, llama, vicuña, and even the wild guanaco), a basic rectangular shape with no sleeves, and a knee length. When compared to contemporaneous Chimu tunics, such as the example with felines and crescent-headdressed figures on view on the exhibition, Inka tunics are imposing and positively austere in their clarity of design.

While invention and originality appear to have been prized in earlier centuries, a form of standardization in the garment's size and pattern took place under Inka rule, as demonstrated by several tunics in the exhibition. One much favored type included diamond-patterned bands across the body at approximately waist level.Tunics became even more important under Inka domination; they were commissioned as a form of taxation and were worn by members of the Inka ruler's household, by his entourage, by nobles, and by warriors. Treasured items in gift exchange, they were put to political and diplomatic purposes and given as gifts to allies and subjected peoples, to leaders and to followers. They had ritual functions as well, used as offerings to sacred places, to powerful deities, and to the honored dead.