These outfits are reconstructions of Postclassic P’urépecha fashion. The P’urépecha inhabited most of what is the Mexican state of Michoacán in the Late Postclassic period (1250-1530). To give an idea of where they are, they lie west to the Aztecs. Like the Aztecs, they quickly expanded into a powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Unlike them however, they were a much more centralized society. In fact, they were the exception, as most of Mesoamerica in the Late Postclassic was split into altepetl’s or city-state tributary systems with varied spheres of influences. The Aztecs (The Triple Alliance of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan and Texcoco) were the most powerful of these city-states. The P’urépecha on the other hand had a tighter control over its conquered territory. Their capital was Tzintzuntzan, located near Lake Pátzquaro and surrounded by other important cities like Ihuatzio and Pátzquaro. By the time of the Spanish invasion, the P’urépecha Empire had already began conquering Aztec territory in Guerrero. Had the Spanish invasion not happened some scholars believe that the P’urépecha may have actually conquered the Aztec empire in time. Given their military technological superiority it certainly was a possibility. But where did the P’urépecha originate from and who were the rulers who carved this powerful empire?
The Aztecs knew them as the Michoaca. Other names call them the Huacanace. The Spaniards called them Tarascans. The word Tarascan comes from a Spanish misunderstanding of the word ‘Tarascue’ which means “son in-law”. Since the Spaniards heard them use this word they assumed it was the name they gave themselves. It was actually a reference to the Spaniards’ taking of indigenous girls i.e. “their daughters”. It’s not known what they called themselves at the time, but nowadays the P’urépecha refer to themselves as that - P’urépecha. The name P’urépecha means, ‘the commoners’ or ‘the people’.
What is fascinating about the P’urépecha is their uniqueness and enigma status in regard to other Mesoamerican peoples. Their language for example has no close relatives in Mesoamerica. They were also known for making copper and bronze tools, weapons and art which wasn’t too common in the area. Their architecture was also very different - making more rounded, circular buildings instead of the rectangular ones which were more common elsewhere. And their fashion, which I will get to later was especially distinct.
Their true origins are still a matter of debate. Their most important document, a manuscript called the Relación de Michoacán explains how they’re people came from a mixture between Chichimec nomads from the north, with the inhabitants near Lake Pátzquaro. They arrived sometime in the Early Postclassic (900-1250). From here, they established their settlement called Zacapu. The founder of the lineage who ruled the P’urépecha was a man named Iréticátame. He and his future descendents were said to rule in place of their solar, fiery deity, Curícaueri . Iréticátame’s wife, likewise was the Sun’s wife, the Moon Xaratanga. They honored Curícaueri and Xaratanga by burning firewood and sending them the scented smoke which also connected their people with the divine (sky) where they resided. Collecting firewood was an obligatory task due to its tremendous religious significance, and the P’urépecha still regard their forests and mountains as sacred places today as well.
Iréticátame’s lineage was known as the Uacúsecha or Eagle dynasty. This lineage lasted until the Spanish invasion. Following Iréticátame, came Sicuírancha; following him came Pauácame and Uápeani (the Chichimec lords), and following them came Curátame. After Curátame’s rule, the lineage split between two founders named Pauácame II and Uápeani II. Following Pauácame II, came Taríacuri. Taríacuri was the man who unified the Lake towns and cities and moved the settlement of Zacapu to Tzintzuntan. He was the son of a Chichimec lord and the daughter of a local fisherman of Lake Pátzquaro. He would became the first Cazonci (ruler) around the year 1300 - and this was the beginning of their kingdom.
Taríacuri’s children were placed to govern the three major cities of Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio and Pátzquaro. They mixed within their own lineage with one of their Chichimec ancestor’s (Uapeani II) descendents. It should be remembered that the P’urépecha royal family practiced incest like most royal families did. Taríacuri died roughly around 1350, leaving his son Hinguingaje, to rule. Most of Hinguingaje’s lineage was considered of ill-repute however, and many were probably murdered/killed. Following him, the next Cazonci was his nephew, Hiripan, who ruled until 1430.
The next Cazonci, Hiripan’s brother, Tangáxoan, further empowered Tzintzuntzan and made it the center of power in the P’urépecha Triple Alliance (Tzintzuntzan, Ihuatzio and Pátzquaro) . Similar to how the Mexica made Mexico-Tenochtitlan the most powerful city of their Triple Alliance that also included Texcoco and Tlacopan. Interestingly, Tzintzuntzan means “Place of Hummingbirds”. And they were guided to found this city by Tzintzuquixu or “Hummingbird of the South”. Tangáxoan died in 1454, leaving his reign to Tzitzipandáquare who ruled until 1479. It was during his reign that the kingdom became more of an empire and it reached its greatest extent, conquering part of Guanajuato in the north, the Nahua and Matlazinca lands to the east and the ports of Zacatula to the west, along the Pacific coast. This particular port was important as it maintained ties with seafaring traders from the south. Around this time, the Mexican Tlatoani Axayacatl heard the grievances of the Tlatoani of Toluca who was worried of the growing Purepecha expansion. Axayacatl now had his excuse to invade the P’urépecha empire. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
Although the P’urépecha kingdom was more of a “rural empire”, due to being less urbanized than Central Mexico, it was still a very powerful state, capable of holding back even the Aztecs. And though the P’urépecha empire was smaller in size, they were the Aztecs’ greatest rival. The Aztec Tlatoani Axayacatl, who is most known for invading his neighboring city of Tlatelolco had long coveted to incorporate P’urépecha lands and the it’s resources. But his ambitions west were firmly stomped. Following the request of the Tlatoani of Toluca, he sent 30,000-24,000 elite troops to invade the P’urépecha Empire in 1478. And although his forces were making advancements, they were repelled in a famous battle in Charo. There, the P’urépecha nearly annihilated the Aztec army. Even the nobles and elite warriors (the famous Eagle knights) were all captured or killed. To Axayacatl’s horror only 2000 troops returned home in humiliating defeat. This was probably the Aztecs worst defeat in their history (until the arrival of the Spaniards) and it stopped any ambitions for trying to expand their empire west. But it did not end their hostilities.
The P’urépecha on the other hand were not invincible either. They ultimately lost the Salitre or Saltpeter War against a unified force from Colima and their neighboring allies on the Pacific coast. The P’urépecha even made an alliance with the Tecuexes, Caxcanes and Coca people, but in the end they were soundly defeated in the Battle of Tlajomulco in the 1480’s. The people of Colima and Jalisco were able to retain their independence from the P’urépecha. This war also cost the P’urépecha Empire their recent acquisition of Zacatula, as they were expelled from the Colima lands altogether.
Meanwhile, the wars with the Aztecs continued under the Tlatoani Ahuizotl, mostly with the help of people neighboring the P’urépecha like the Matlazinca (whom the Aztecs also displaced). The border between the empries was particularly militarized. The Cutzmala garrison for instance held up to 10,000 warriors - as a testament to this hostile era. Most of the fighters however, were allies of either side or people living within the borders of the two superpowers. These people include the Otomi, Matlazinca, Mazahua, Escamoeche, Tepuzteca, Chontal (not from Oaxaca), and Cuitlateca. In addition, the Mexicans also instigated and aided many rebellions by conquered people living within the P’urépecha Empire. The P’urépecha fired back in 1515, by giving the Aztecs another blow at Indaparapeo, where they suffered another defeat. Interestingly, despite all this there was still trade between the two empires. This trade was largely a black market where things were secretly exchanged between the two sides (likely smuggled across the border). And the P’urépecha Emperor or Cazonci also attended the inauguration parties of the new Aztec Emperors.
In spite of the rancor that existed between the Aztec Empire and the P’urépecha Empire there was an attempt for an alliance, at least briefly. This was during the Spanish invasion of the Aztec Empire. In an act of desperation Moctezuma II sent emissaries to the P’urépecha Cazonci to offer an alliance against the Spaniards and their allies. The combined forces of the Totonacs, Tlaxcaltecs and Spaniards was proving too much for the Triple Alliance to handle on their own and to help even the odds Moctezuma II offered an alliance with the Cazonci. Certainly had such an alliance taken place, the Spaniards and Tlaxcaltecs would have no chance of victory. The Cazonci, who was Tangáxoan II, however, rejected this proposal and killed the Mexican emissaries. One of his reasons for doing so was because he criticized the Mexica for only giving their Gods songs and not firewood, like the P’urépecha did. He thought this was a useless offering for the Gods. Cortes also sent word to the Cazonci for an alliance against the Aztecs, however, he was rejected as well. Instead, they remained neutral at least until 1522.
From the razed city of Tenochtitlan, Cortes sent emissaries who exchanged gifts with the P’urépecha Cazonci Tangáxoan II. When Cortes received some gold as part of his gifts, his interests in the region suddenly peaked. He immediately sent Cristobal de Olid with a small army of Tlaxcaltecs and conquistadors to Tzintzuntzan. Fearing that his Empire would be devastated and his capital sacked the same way that occurred in Tenochtitlan with the Aztecs - he decided to not put up any resistance at all, despite having an army of up to 100,000 troops. This was greatly opposed by some of the nobles but for not doing anything, Tangáxoan II was allowed to remain as a ruler to his people even though Cortes also claimed to be their ruler. It should be noted that the Cazonci was also dealing with an outbreak of diseases brought on by the Europeans. When Cortes found out that he was not receiving the full tribute payments from the Cazonci, he conspired with a noble named Cuinierángari to kill Tangáxoan II. In 1530 Tangáxoan II surrendered and was later strangled, tied to a stake and burned. With the help of Cuinierángari and the ruthless conquistador Nuño de Guzmán who’d been sent to Michoacán, the Cazonci had died. Nuño de Guzmán was particularly famous for committing countless of atrocities in this very turbulent period. There was however some heroic figures who fought the Spaniards after the Cazonci’s death, like Princess Erendira. She was said to learn to ride a captured Spanish horse and lead troops to battle with her father (perhaps the brother of Tangáxoan II). What became of her is unknown but it’s thought she committed suicide or died some other way after her father died.
After the death of the last free Cazonci (Tangáxoan II), the P’urépecha Empire was no more. In addition, the diseases carried by the Europeans continued to devastate the local population. From then on a series of puppet rulers were installed until it gradually became a part of “New Spain”. Although their empire is no more, the P’urépecha people remain in the Mexican states of Michoacán (and a few others in Jalisco and Guanajuato) to this very day. The name Michoacán comes from Nahuatl which means “Place of Fishermen”, a name given by the Aztecs to the P’urépecha, who fished in Lake Pátzquaro. Today the P’urépecha number at about 175,000 people in Mexico and small immigration communities in the United States. Most still live in their ancestors’ homeland in the mountainous lands surrounded by oak, fir and pine trees. And to this day these forests are regarded as sacred places. And although their temples are now destroyed or in ruins, they still have their natural counterparts - the mountains. Although now the forests are being destroyed by illegal loggers, run by the Mexican Drug Cartels (to make room for marijuana plantations or to sell the wood). And with no help from the Mexican Government to stop the activities the P’urépecha are left to lead the fight to protect their sacred lands by themselves. Some have since declared themselves autonomous from Mexico. Today, many still also speak the language and have their own contemporary fashion. Now then, let’s go back in time to the Late Postclassic period and explore these outfits! The following outfits omit most of the military attire, and focuses more on the civilian clothing:
1. The Skirt: The skirt is known as a sirìhtaqua, in the P’urépecha language. It is a made of a rectangular piece of cloth wrapped around and tied at the waist. This was the most basic element of female clothing. The sirìhtaqua was unique among Mesoamerican skirts in that they were unusually shorter and tighter fitting than all the others. At its longest, skirts barely reached above the knees. Skirts were typically made of cotton or maguey and they were decorated with checkered and striped patterns. This was the only garment worn by some women as P’urépecha women were usually topless (another feature that is uncommon among other Mesoamericans). The use of such little clothes is a bit surprising given that they lived in a place where the climate brings frost during some times of the year. This example is probably of a commoner woman.
2.The Skirt II: This is an alternate version from the figure above only with yellowish paint. It appears on a scene showing a commoner’s post-wedding duties that occurred before consummation. During this period of a few days women had to sweep the house and the road in which the husband will eventually take to return to her, after he’s completed his duties of getting firewood for the temple.
3. The Weed Skirt: This is a type of skirt that contained vegetal fiber. In the Relación de Michoacán they are mentioned as ‘naguales de yerba’. A nagual was a word Spaniards used to describe indigenous skirts. In this example it is worn by a noblewoman. Note her short hair - the Codex Florentine mentions P’urépecha men and women shaving their heads. While this may be an Aztec exaggeration (they regarded them as enemies so there may be an air of slander), short hair or partly shaven hair does indeed appear for some women in the Relación de Michoacán. But, not all of the P’urépecha appear this way.
4. The Left-Side Quechquemitl:This is a short triangular quechquemitl that was worn at the side. That is, the ‘triangular’ point which would normally be worn front and back was switched at the sides along the shoulders. This leaves the front and back sides open. The right point is flipped over to the left side, leaving only the left side hanging down. Since the quchquemitl is also much shorter than the usual length it leaves her torso almost completely bare. As a result only one shoulder and the neck are covered. This outfit comes from an illustration in the Relación de Michoacán that shows a noblewoman who is about to be married. It is also worn by the Goddess Xaratanga who appears to Tangáxoan I in a dream. This figure wears a turquoise necklace that would be worn by Princesses during their weddings.
5. The Right-Side Quechquemitl: A variant of the left-side quechquemitl. It is also depicted in the Relación de Michoacán. However in this case it is worn by a noblewoman who presents the head of Lord Curínguaro (whom she beheaded) to her relative, Taríacuri.
6. The Rounded Quechquemitl: This is a rounded quechquemitl. Unlike previous examples this one is more full in that it covers her torso more. This kind of outfit would be more appropriate for the colder environment and yet strangely it rarely appears in the primary sources. Quechquemitl’s of all varieties seem to be garments worn only by the elites. She is probably the Ireri or head wife of the Cazonci (ruler). The Cazonci’s palace was made up of mostly women, including those who guarded his home and possessions. The Cazonci had children with many of them too, who would later marry other dignitaries. The Ireri was thought of as the wife of the Sun and had authority over the other women of the Iréchequaro (Royal Palace). The Royal women lived in a special place called the Guatápperio.
7.The Hip Cloth: This is the most basic element worn by males. Unlike other Mesoamericans who wear loincloths, P’urépecha males wear this short hip cloth which wraps around the body. Because it did not wrap between the legs it often left their genitals and rear exposed. To some of their contemporaries, like the Aztecs, and later the Spaniards, this was seen as ‘indecent and shameful’. The lack of a loincloth however makes the P’urépecha very unique among Mesoamericans. His hair is worn in a typical male way; shaven style, like a short mohawk, with a braided tail in the back. This example is of a commoner.
8.The Hip-Cloth II: This version shows the same figure from above only with black paint. I included one version with and without black paint because of its frequent occurrence on some of the people wearing the hip cloth. I am not sure what the meaning of the black paint was but it was certainly used by commoners. It appears in a scene showing a commoner’s wedding, or the labors the groom had to do after the wedding, but before the couple consummated.
9.The Executioner: This shows an executioner or a man who delivers punishment to those who break the laws. He has long hair with a short headband. He also has a lip plug of gold which indicates his status as a member of nobility. He carries a club with which he uses to crush the offenders head.
10.The Cicuilli: This shows a tunic that was worn by men instead of the typical Mesoamerican cape. It is sown closed however other varieties that have ties at the front also exist. It is made of cotton or maguey and it was of elbow width while its length went just above the knees. The garment resembled the huipil (a common Mesoamerican blouse worn by women). This is why other Mesoamericans thought it strange that the men not only did not wear loincloths, but also wore ‘women’s’ clothing. The Aztecs often made fun of them for this. This is worn by a ‘valiant man’, a special elite warrior in their army. They sometimes carried their squadron’s banner in their hands. While, military banners were commonly used by other Mesoamerican captains and warriors, those were carried on their backs, not their hands like this figure. This example is worn by a ‘valiant warrior’, however it was also worn by all the lords and nobles. Some Cicuilli were additionally adorned with feathers.
11.The Petámuti: This is a High Priest, called the Petámuti. He was the head of the Cúritecha, a sect of priests who carried tobacco gourds on their backs. The Petámuti was known for wearing garments and accessories specific to him. He wears a sown cicuilli or tunic with a stepped design called the ucata-tararenguequa. His staff is the irréchequa tsiríquarequa which symbolically represented the Empire with the flint spear (the Gods of the Hunt), the turquoise stone (the blue-green waters of lake Pátzquaro), and the feathers of multi colors which represented the four directions - north (yellow), south (black), west (white), and east (red). He also has a wreath of white fiber or feathers. In addition, he carries copper/gold tweezers. And finally his tobacco gourd set with turquoise stones was a reminder of his responsibility to the people by literally bearing them on his back. According to their creation stories, humans came from four little balls of ash - and that is what is left over after the tobacco and incense balls he carries in his gourd are burned - ash. One last thing to notice is his sandals. Red sandals were indicative of people born of noble birth.
12.The Cazonci: This is the ruler of the P’urépecha Empire, who is given the title of the Irecha or Cazonci. The Cazonci was known for wearing a colored braid, with a wreath of clover leaves around his head. In addition he also wears turquoise lip plugs, gold ear plugs, and a necklace of fish bones (such necklaces being prestigious). His cicuilli is of a longer robe-like length, but this was not restricted for the Cazonci to wear. Also his ties at the front reveal that it resembled more of a long jacket. In fact, the name cicuilli is thought to have been a loan word of the Nahuatl term for jackets - xicolli. Lastly, he also wears red sandals and bracelets of gold. Here, he also carries a pipe in his hand. Ceramic pipes were another unique feature among the P’urépecha . In the Relación de Michoacán the Cazonci is also identified by being seated on a stool.
13.The Cazonci II: This is an alternate outfit worn by the Cazonci. This outfit may be part of a ceremonial dance or more likely what would be worn for war. Nevertheless, it is included here. He wears a tunic or cicuilli with an opening at the front. The hem of the cicuilli is decorated with feathers. Underneath this he wears cotton armor called an ichcauhuipilli in Nahuatl. His headdress is composed of quetzal feathers and a jaguar skin headband. He carries a quiver of jaguar skin and bracelets of the same furs (which also work as bracers for his bow). His necklace is of turquoise beads. He carries deer hooves with copper bells wrapped around his calves. His bow is specially designed with encrusted emeralds for the ruler.
-The P’urépecha’s uniqueness in culture can clearly be seen in their fashion when compared to other Mesoamerican peoples. The males wear a hip cloth, not a loincloth; the females where a short skirt with no top, as opposed to huipils and medium-full length skirts. Even the checkered designs on their clothes is unique. So the question arises where/how did this unique fashion develop and why are they the only Mesoamericans to wear such garments? One theory is that they’re people may have some ancestry shared with people that came from South America - or perhaps at least had extensive trade with them. Specifically, from the Manabi Provincial coast of Ecuador. If such a migration took place it would have occurred along the Pacific coast. The closest other Mesoamerican link in terms of clothing can be found in Nayarit in figurines from Ixtlán del Río (Anawalt, 1998).
But these are over 1000 years before the P’urépecha. At an even earlier time period however, in Ecuador, figurines with similar clothes appears in the Manabi Province. Similarities around the same time as the clothes from Ixtlán del Río also occurs in the Los Esteros site in Ecuador. Even the clothes checkered pattern of Ixtlán del Río and later the P’urépecha appears in Ecuador in examples from the Guangala-Manteña phase (C.E. 700-800) and the Milagro-Quevedo phase (C.E. 400-1500’s). Obviously P’urépecha style clothing was popular and older in the Andean Cultures (checkered patterns also occur in Inca tunics). And because P’urépecha style clothing does not occur anywhere else, in any time of Mesoamerica there is a strong suspicion that the style originated from Ecuador. (ibid.) Similar clothes also appears on a site on the Pacific coast of Panama (a stopping point between Ecuador and Mesoamerica?). It is also interesting to point out that their language has some similarities with Quechua spoken among the Andean cultures of South America. Furthermore Spanish documents indicate that strange traders from faraway lands came to trade in the ports of Zacatula. Migrations from people in North America and South America into Mesoamerica was not unusual. In fact, only recently are scholars beginning to understand the complex movements of peoples moving throughout the Americas to settle and/or trade with one another by land and sea.
-Alternate theories of their origin place them as possibly coming from Veracruz. Although this is very unlikely given the above reasons. Another is that they came with the Nahuatl migrations from the north, but again this is also very unlikely.
-The Guatápperio where the Royal women lived, is also nowadays the name where maidens who serve the Virgin Mary live in. Only now this place is called the Guatapera.
-Due to being limited by one document with illustrations to refer to, it should be noted that this probably does not represent all the fashion, but it does provide a basic understanding of it.
—Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. 1998. “They Came to Trade Exquisite Things Ancient West Mexican-Ecuadorian Contacts.” Ancient West Mexico Art and Archeology of the Unknown Past, 233-242.
—Anawalt, Patricia Rieff. 1990.Indian Clothing Before Cortes: Costumes From the Codices.
—Bernardino de Sahagún. 1590.Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. (vol 10) trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O Anderson. (1950-1982).
—Corona Nuñez, José. 1958. Relaciones geográficas de la diocesis de Michoacán 1579-80. Colección “Siglo XVI”
—Jerónimo de Acalá. 1540. Relación de Michoacán
—Stone, Cynthia L. 2004. In Place of Gods and Kings: Authorship and Identity in the Relación de Michoacán.
wow, so much information… mi papi’s family is from the michoacán shore of lake chapala, close to jalisco, for at least the past hundred years but mi tia y papa have no idea what heritage our family came from. i need to see what ourstories i can restitch… this essay inspired me to get my ish together. what do peeps think?