The Andean Tunic, 400 BCE–1800 CE

March 7–October 16, 2011


The ancient peoples of northwestern South America are renowned for their great abilities as weavers, dyers, and designers of textiles. The primacy of cloth was established with the earliest beginnings of civilization in the region that is now Peru, when the manipulating of fibers into functional and decorated cloth and fiber objects began. Cloth has remained integral to Peruvian society as a mark of indigenous wealth and identity until modern times. Among the myriad textiles produced in the Andes were garments, including the main article of traditional male clothing, the tunic—shirtlike, open at the neck and sewn up the sides—which was made and elaborated with skill, care, and imagination for more than two thousand years and occupied a particularly meaningful cultural place in ancient Peru. All garments were gender specific and generally conformed to basic types: for men, a tunic, mantle, and loincloth; for women, a dress, belt, and shawl. Headbands, hats, or other head coverings were usually worn by both.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, the Andean tunic had become known to a European world well beyond the rugged Andes Mountains. Invading Spaniards in the 1530s recorded that the tunics were worn by male officials of various rank and status within the Inka empire, even by distinguished royals such as the ruling Inka himself. As noted by one Spanish commentator, "The clothing worn by the lords in ancient times was very elegant and of many very fine colors."