Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Seibold, Katherine E. “Dressing the Part: Indigenous Costume as Political and Cultural Discourse in Peru.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 319–329.


Copyright © 1994 Katharine E. Seibold


In Latin America, indigenous clothing has often been equated with indigenous cultural identity. When we speak of indigenous fashion as being a marker of cultural identity, we must also examine the more fluid roles of the indigenous individual and community within the state. How is individual, community, and state identity represented? What form does the discourse between the individual, the community, and the state take? Many anthropologists have written of the flexible and strategic use of ethnicity, and costume as a primary tool in the manipulation of ethnic identity. Indigenous, handwoven dress legitimates community as well as ethnic group membership while western dress indicates membership in the larger global market economy and state culture. I would like to proceed from this foundation in a different direction, that of indigenous costume as metacommunication and indigenous discourse.

Indigenous peoples, such as those I worked with in Choquecancha, Peru, hold a fundamental concept of peoplehood, such that their self-reference,"runakuna," simply translates as "people." Almost all indigenous groups throughout the world refer to themselves as "people" in their own languages. It is not an ethnic concept; this self-reference is not as an ethnic people in some oppositional relationship to an Ethnic Other, although this is what their identity is slowly turning into. As their interaction with the state and global political and market systems increases, and as their self-definition is increasingly co-opted by state agendas, other terms of self-reference, more ethnic and more oppositional in nature are used. Choquecanchenans have no doubts about their identity and where they fit into the social and political order. It is only us who get confused and need to place people into "native," "indigenous," "ethnic," or "mestizo" categories. But when we use these colonial terms we overlook the unique strategies of cultural affirmation, recuperation, revitalization, and maintenance of individual, community, or group identity. At the same time, community members in Choquecancha themselves identify levels of involvement by different terms: reserving "runakuna" for fully participating members of the community; "campesinos" for those community members who interact with the state political system and market economy; and "cholos," "mestizos," and "mistis" for non-Indians and non-community members. There are then different types of relationships.

Fashion adds a visual dimension to the discourse, costume offering an instant understanding of the wearer's identity and relationship and form of interaction with the community and the state. Handwoven textiles produce a self-reference of Choquecancha (a wider reference than runa); the woman's lliklla, or shawl, and the man's poncho identify the wearer as being from Choquecancha and not Ccachin, a neighboring and rival community. As the weavings are sold to middlemen who market them for the tourist trade, the community then becomes "indigenous," as the frame of reference changes to the state and even international perspective. Community members are aware of the multiple layers of identity available to them, and just as they speak in different voices, so too do the textiles they weave and the fashions they choose to wear. The Quechua speakers of Choquecancha, Peru (a subsistence agricultural community which lies to the north of Cuzco) use their handwoven costume and textile designs to construct an identity which places them in specific types of relationships within both their community and the Peruvian state. Handwoven dress functions as discourse with the state, at times in opposition and at times adopted and coopted by the state as an instrument and a symbol of national identity.