Wherein the Mayans know that stylish footwear conveys status and power.
I desperately need a new pair of athletic shoes—a general rule of thumb is that, if you’re super-gluing pieces of tread back onto the soles, then you need new shoes. My hatred of shopping for clothes, based in part on my seething hatred for most fashion styles—I don’t want to wear anything that could be categorized as “light brights” or “cosmic kicks”—will probably keep me away from retailers until I’m consistently snagging my toes on the filthy holes (and perhaps at that point the retailers will pay me to stay away…so…cha-ching).
Being neither a “Sneakerhead” nor a “Hypebeast,” I have little awareness of what my footwear says about my personal status. This separates me not only from modern sneaker collectors but also from the ancient Mayans, who knew that a well-feathered sandal was an important mark of distinction between an aristocratic fashionista and common laborer.
Cactli (or cacles) are sandals worn by the ancient Mayans (as well as their modern descendents) made from a variety of materials. The most common were plaited from ixtle, a stiff plant fiber derived primarily from yucca and agave (a modern brand of ixtle is manufactured under the name Tampico); these sandals are still commonly made and worn in central Mexico.
The next step up in cactli were sandals made from animal skins. While most skin sandals were made from deer hides, warriors and rulers could wear sandals made from jaguar skins (sometimes even including a jaguar’s paw). Because the jaguar was the powerful ruler of the underworld, jaguar sandals could give the wearer an increase in power and authority.
Even more ornate sandals could be worn for ceremonial purposes. Lydia Pine notes one example from a Late Classical (600–900 CE) stucco panel:
The soles of (royal heir) Upakal K’inich’s sandals appear to have been woven, likely from reed or henequen fibers. An ornamental fastener on the bridge of the foot, which holds each sandal in place, is ringed by blue feathers at its base. More blue feathers sprout from the fastener’s top. A leg wrap surrounding Upakal K’inich’s lower calf also features blue feathers, and over the wrap is a woven strap with shell or clay bells, which would have tinkled with each twitch of the leg. ‘Like many items of ceremonial dress, elaborate sandals such as these were intended to be eyecatching, full of motion, color, and sound,’ says archaeologist Franco Rossi, currently a fellow at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library.
Despite Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto showing rich people lounging around wearing similarly ornate footwear, it’s unlikely the fashion-forward roamed the streets of Tikal singing with Run-D.M.C. that their cactli were “Funky fresh and yes, cold on my feet.”
While Sneakerheads and Carrie Bradshaw-wannabes might constantly search the Internet for the freshest and hottest shoes, some people are turning to (and, it might be argued, appropriating) the Mayans for flashy footwear. A French line of Mayan-inspired sandals, Caclès Paris, sells shoes “designed in Paris and handcrafted in Greece” in a style moving the wearer to experience that “everything in the brand’s universe is inspired by dreams of travel and invokes the hippies’ spirit of freedom”…you know, just like the Mayans.
Image: Stucco of Upakal K’inich (Source).