Clothing power: Hierarchies of gender difference and ambiguity in Moche ceramic representations of human dress, C.E. 1-850

Sarahh Elizabeth Malka Scher
Dept. of Art History, Emory University
July, 2010
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Using the representation of costume in ceramic art, this study examines how the Moche of northern Peru formulated ideals of gender and status, and how those ideals fit into larger Andean traditions of gender ambiguity. A synthesis of Panofskian iconography and semiotic analysis is used to understand the ways in which clothing and ornament speak to gender in Moche art. The elements of costume have been an essential part of social identity formation in the Andes for millennia, a trait that persists today. Moche ideals of gender are considered within a larger Amerindian tradition of gender ambiguity and its relationship to spirits and the divine. How the Moche upper classes negotiated between the spiritual power of the different-by-birth and the theocratic power of the noble-by-birth is visible in the treatment of sex and gender roles and the place of ambiguous gender in the art. Moche sex and gender exist in a continuum rather than in a dyad; while the poles of male and female are clearly defined, there are a number of individuals who are designated as ambiguous. Gender-ambiguous individuals in Moche art belong to three classes: performative, age-based, and diagnostically physical. All three rely on a combination of garments that erase distinctions of difference to signal this ambiguity. Gender ambiguity in Moche art is for the most part allied with private rituals, much more closely associated with the shamanic tradition than the public rites of the Sacrifice Ceremony, which were the province of the upper classes.