Feather and Cotton Shirt

Date: 1500
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Artifacts


This tabbard, a kind of sleeveless shirt, is one of several decorative articles of clothing, headwear, pillows, and bags made by pre-Columbian Andean proples from the feathers of South American birds. The Chimu, a people of northern Peru who were conquered by the Inca shortly before the Spanish conquest, created especially notable featherwork, much of which has been preserved in near perfect condition by arid tombs. Although the Chimu probably kept caged birds from which they harvested a steady supply of feathers, the colors seem to have had greater significance to their artists than the species because similarly colored feathers of different birds are used together in a single-hued area (Rowe 1984).

The fact that the coastal Chimu worked almost exclusively with feathers from the Amazon region to their east demonstrates just how interconnected regions were in pre-conquest South America. The reason for the preference of Amazonian feathers is unknown, but historical ornithologist John P. O'Neill suggests that the featherwork of the Amazon region was famous in surrounding areas, thus the birds they used were valued higher (Rowe 1984). Another theory might be that since tropical birds are often more colorful, unlike most mountain birds of the Andes, and since and color was so valued by the weavers and feather workers, that birds were sought out from those regions.  The inclusion of feathers into their textiles gave Andean weavers another option with which to express their cosmological views (feathers are from the sky) and their culture. The fact that the material came from renowned designers in a distant land--like wearing Italian styles today--added to their appeal.

This tabbard also has a repeating pattern of anthropomorphic gods. The coloring differs from god to god, however, where some have different parts done in the contrasting dark and light tones. According to anthropologist Katherine E. Seibold, the interplay of colors between the background and foreground is meant to signify duality, a central aspect of Andean cosmology. Dualism, reciprocity, and symmetry are all key to the worldviews of Andean groups and thus they find expression in their textiles, their most important means of two-dimensional representation.

This emphasis on dualism also accounts for the prevalence of sun and moon symbols on traditional clothing. The sun decorates men's clothing while the moon is found on women's, yet these two astronomical bodies are of equal importance to Andeans and complement each other.


Rowe, Ann Pollard. Costumes and Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor: Textiles from Peru's North Coast. With feather identification by John P. O'Neill. Washington D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1984.

Seibold, Katharine E. "Textiles and Cosmology in Choquecancha, Cuzco, Peru." In Andean Cosmologies Through Time: Persistence and Emergence. Eds. Robert V.H. Dover, Katharine E. Seibold, and John H. McDowell. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

CITATION: Peruvian Tabbard, c. 1500. The Granger Collection, New York. 0035524.