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August 15, 2018
Sarahh E. M. Scher and Billie J. A. Follensbee, eds. Dressing the Part: Power, Dress, Gender, and Representation in the Pre-Columbian Americas Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2017. 520 pp.; 148 b/w ills. Hardcover $125.00 (9780813062211)

In recent decades, gender, and its role in the expression and construction of social identity and power, has emerged as an essential topic of inquiry in the study of ancient American cultures. Major breakthroughs have followed broader recognition that gender is fluid, historically contingent, and a focal point in the negotiation and contestation of power. Dressing the Part: Power, Dress, Gender, and Representation in the Pre-Columbian Americas contributes to this vital field by presenting a series of case studies that explore the ways in which the human body is concealed, revealed, adorned, and enhanced through costume to express, co-opt, or subvert gendered identities and how these performed identities articulate with power structures. In the words of the editors, the contributors to this collection of essays aim to take part in recent efforts to “create a holistic image of gender in the pre-Columbian Americas that includes not only men and women but also individuals with dual or ambiguous genders, as well as to investigate how these gender identities are part of the greater fabric of social relations, political power, and religious authority” (2). The publication of this book comes just three years after another edited volume of similar thematic content, Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerica and Central America (2014), and indeed shares some of the same contributors. Dressing the Part, however, has a broader temporal and geographic sweep while more specifically considering how dress was used to signal, buttress, appropriate, or subvert gendered identities in the Americas prior to European invasion.

The investigation of dress in the ancient Americas presents several distinct challenges. Because in most cases organic elements of actual costumes do not survive, investigators must frequently draw their conclusions from artistic representations in more durable media, such as stone, mural painting, and ceramic. This too presents a challenge, as investigators must then determine whether beings represented are generalized, idealized, or historical personages, supernatural beings, or some combination thereof, and there are no universal criteria for making such distinctions. In the rare instances in which actual costumes are recovered in funerary contexts, it is often unclear whether the costumes and accoutrements found with the body reflect the status and identity that the deceased held in life, an issue raised by the contributions of Ann H. Peters and Elsa L. Tomasto-Cagigao and by Sarahh Scher. While costumes are mutable and identities are multifaceted, does the representation or presentation of costumes in more permanent contexts, such as nonperishable artwork and funerary assemblages, seek to “fix” otherwise transient, performative aspects of the wearer’s or owner’s social identity or status? Despite a more nuanced understanding of gender fluidity, several essays highlight the fact that ancient views and representations of gender are often refracted through a reductive lens that is shaped by modern expectations about gender and power. Chapters by Alice Beck Kehoe, Billie Follensbee and Katie McElfresh Buford, and Kim N. Richter demonstrate that contemporary scholars interested in dress and gender must also contend with the biases, assumptions, and blind spots of previous generations of predominantly male scholars who may have ignored or even modified data to conform to androcentric views.

In their introductory chapter, editors Scher and Follensbee stake out the conceptual and theoretical terrain of the volume. They situate the book in relation to existing literature, primarily based in the ancient Americas, and define the relationships between sex, gender, and power. Dress and performance are arenas in the negotiation and contestation of power and, they note, costume (including clothing, ornamentation, and other accoutrements) not only signifies a person’s gender and status, but also provides important clues about a society’s attitudes toward a given gender or status (2–3). The challenge then, taken up by most of the volume’s contributors, is to gain a greater understanding of both the norms of dress and gender within a given society as well as the instances in which these norms are transgressed. In general, the essays are arranged geographically from north to south by region and chronologically within those regions.

Two chapters are devoted to North America. Kehoe discusses the production of twined bags, taking a long view from the earliest evidence from 7400 BCE to the early twentieth century. Twined bags, Kehoe argues, were powerful objects produced and handled by women and have been overlooked by male archaeologists. She further notes that nudity or simple dress may also signify high status in ritual contexts, which runs counter to Euro-American expectations. Follensbee and Buford examine the iconic Rogan Plates of Etowah and other representations of the so-called Mississippian Bird-Man and point out the demonstrable inaccuracies in the drawings of such objects that have, in some instances, led to their misidentification as biologically male. They conclude that elite status was not solely predicated along lines of sex and gender, but other factors such as lineage and agency were prime determinants of elevated status in Mississippian societies.

In one of the six chapters that cover Mesoamerica, Follensbee traces the appearance of costume elements on Olmec figurines and sculptures. Some of the garments and objects that appear to be gendered occasionally appear on members of the opposite sex, suggesting that certain types of gendered power could be appropriated by members of the opposite sex. Melissa K. Logan’s exhaustive examination of capes that appear on Late Formative period figures from West Mexico indicates that the cape was not itself a gendered article, but its wearers are gendered adults, excluding the elderly. Returning to the Gulf Coast, Cherra Wylie outlines costume elements on representations of women. She argues that not only an increase in the appearance of women, but also the increased variety in the roles in which they are portrayed, point to an elevated role of women during the Late Classic period. Matthew Looper and Karon Winzenz each follow the development of Maya costume elements over time—the beaded net skirt and the quadripartite emblem, respectively. Looper argues that the beaded net skirt was originally considered feminine garb at Teotihuacan but was appropriated by the Maya during the Classic period and became gender neutral, worn by both masculine and feminine personages. The quadripartite emblem, a collection of ceremonial objects, was typically incorporated into the costumes of male rulers during the Early Classic era, but later frequently appeared on royal women. In step with Wylie’s findings, Winzenz argues that this shift signifies the increasing importance of women in the Late Classic period as legitimators of royal accession and as mediators in cross-polity alliances following the collapses of the Early Classic superpowers. Richter challenges long-held assumptions that Postclassic male Huastec sculptures represent rulers, warriors, and priests, whereas female sculptures represent goddesses. According to Richter, sculptures representing men and women appear in near-equal numbers, suggesting little gender disparity, and both appear as rulers and warriors.

In a sole chapter devoted to the Greater Chibchan region, Laura M. Wingfield argues that a shift in prominence between two symbols of power in ancient Costa Rica—the greenstone axe pendant and gold figural pendant—reflects a significant transition toward male-dominated societies in the region, which was fomented by larger settlement size, the introduction of metallurgy, and the advent of maize agriculture. The two chapters based in the Central Andes differ in texture from the previous essays, as they deal more directly with actual costuming recovered from graves. In a nuanced and thorough investigation of the Late Paracas and Early Nasca mortuary bundles, Peters and Tomasto-Cagigao observe that some of them may be gender ambiguous or may have changed gender at some point after initial interment. They raise the important issue that gender is not stable after death, and ancestorhood carries its own gender attributes. Scher considers representations of the Moche Priestess in relation to high-status burials such as the Señora de Cao. She rightly problematizes the relationship between lived social status and the status of richly adorned persons in funerary contexts. Powerful women in Moche representations and graves, she argues, display symbols of authority more typically associated with masculinity. In other words, women had access to power in Moche society, but power was framed in terms of masculinity.

A single volume with such a broad scope is bound to leave some lacunae. Dressing the Part does not offer a comprehensive view of the relationship between gender and power in the ancient Americas, nor could it, and some important regions and periods are absent or underrepresented. Among the chapters devoted to Mesoamerica—more than half of the book—the subjects covered are heavily weighted toward the Gulf Coast and Maya Lowlands, with only brief forays into Central Mexico and Oaxaca by Looper and Richter. The Mesoamerican chapters work best together, signaling a greater need for cross-cultural comparison within regions. Wingfield’s chapter does a lot of chronological and cultural heavy lifting, perhaps at the cost of specificity, and scholars of North America and the Central Andes may be left wanting more representation. Despite these obvious voids, Dressing the Part is essential reading that not only brings fresh insights and highlights dynamism, fluidity, and contentiousness in the relationships between gender and power in ancient American societies, but also serves as a solid basis for further investigation.

Andrew Turner
Postdoctoral Associate, Yale University Art Gallery