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Clothing And Ornaments Of Brazilian Indians

Clothing was introduced to Indian customs by the Portuguese colonists. From the contact with so-called “civilization”, the Indians began adopting the clothes of the men of the cities.

Clothing And Ornaments Of Brazilian Indians

Last update: 26/09/2013

By: Lúcia Gaspar - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

At the time of the discovery of Brazil, the Brazilian natives were naked. This is how the Portuguese settlers found them. Costumes and decorations were commonly used in rituals and celebrations, as they are today in many tribes, especially the most isolated.

Clothing was introduced to Indian customs by the Portuguese colonists. From the contact with so-called “civilization”, the Indians began adopting the clothes of the men of the cities.

Currently, Indians’ clothing is related to the climate, the nature of their rites and festivals. There are tribes that despite having adopted the use of clothes, members remain naked in special ceremonies.

Because Brazil is a tropical country with hot weather, the majority of Indians use little clothing most of the time. Some tribes, who are on the Brazilian border closer to the wind currents originating in the Andes, use a kind of vestment called ‘cushmã’, woven by Indian women, during the colder periods.

The most common clothing items for “uncivilized” Brazilian Indians, or those with little contact with society, are thongs, kilts or belts that cover their genitalia, made from animal feathers, plant leaves, tree bark, seeds or beads. The latter, highly valued, have always been an object of trade among primitive peoples and settlers and travellers. In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo had spread it to Asia, and it was left to the Portuguese and Spaniards to spread it among the Amerindians.

In some tribes, since the nineteenth century, women have worn cotton sheets and quilts wrapped around the bust – a garment resembling a tunic. Generally speaking, the indigenous garment is not associated with morality.

Brazilian Indians use many ornaments and body painting. The adornments are made with feathers from birds, such as macaws, hawks, parrots, toucans and scarlet ibis; sisal; stones; teeth, nails, claws and beaks of animals; and seeds. Adorned garments, especially with feathers, are often used on special occasions, celebrations and rites.

The Tupi Indians were the ones who specialised most in feather art. Because they quickly learnt the technique of weaving with cotton thread, their garments were made on strips and networks of fabric. Other groups have used twisted fibres or straw frames more.

Feathers are used in two ways: for gluing feathers on the body and for clothing and decoration of loincloths, headdresses and diadems, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, nose, lip and ear ornaments, masks, hair ornaments, hoods (type of hat) with neck cover, and robes.

Among the Bororo Indians, headdresses of blue macaw feathers dominate, which became a characteristic style of the group. The Maués prefer feathered ornaments with predominantly green colours on a red background, and among the Carajás, fan-shaped ornaments on the head are usual.

Feather adornment is a male privilege. Women typically use small feather pieces glued to the body with viscous resin or milk to form a type of mosaic.

Dance is very important to the Indians. They dance while preparing for war, when they return from it, celebrating a ‘cacique’ (chief), crops, ripening of fruits, good fishing, to mark the puberty of adolescents or honour the dead in funeral rituals.

In some dances, many people wear masks, called dominoes, which cover the entire body and serve as their disguise.

Made with vegetable tow from the inner bark of trees, they are made from one piece of material, except for the sleeves, being supplemented by a fringe skirt of fibres. There is always a chilling drawing on the face, baring teeth, and without holes for the eyes, since tow is quite porous and allows vision through the tissue. They are painted with paint commonly used by the Indians: the soot from the bottom of pans made into a black paste, annatto for red, and clay for orange or yellow colours. There are also smaller masks made from gourds and ‘buriti’ straw.

Indians find in the three kingdoms of nature – plant, animal and mineral – materials for making ornaments like necklaces, bracelets, armbands and earrings. Even without proper equipment, they take years drilling chiselled stones, such as white quartz and small pebbles; they use teeth, nails, bones, bird beaks and feathers, snake ribs, snail shells, beetle wings, armadillo tails; seeds of various shapes and colours, and types of bamboo sticks.

Indians also incorporate any “civilized” object they find decorative into their adornments, such as metal taps, coins and even firearm casings.

In addition to the adornments, body painting is very common among indigenous Brazilians, which, besides vanity and aesthetics, is used in some tribes as a way of distinguishing social groups within a given indigenous society. The materials for this painting are inks made with vegetable dyes, such as annatto (red), the dark blue, nearly black, colour achieved with genipap; the carbon powder that is used on the body over a layer of resin; and limestone, from which the colour white is extracted.

Their bodies are decorated with geometric designs, some complex and very beautiful. The choice of colours for body painting is important because it aims to convey to the body the joy of vibrant colours.

Recife, 27 April 2011.
Translated by Peter Leamy, February 2012.a

sources consulted

CRULS, Gastão. Hiléia amazônica. 2. ed. São Paulo: Cia. Ed. Nacional, 1955. (Brasiliana, v.6)

FIGUÊIREDO, Lima. Índios do Brasil. São Paulo: Cia. Ed. Nacional, 1939. (Brasiliana, v.163)

MOURÃO, Noemia. Arte plumária e máscaras de danças dos índios brasileiros. São Paulo: Artes Gráficas Bradesco, 1971.

MOURÃO, Noêmia. Índio com viseira feita de plumas de japu, arara, gavião e flocos de penugem branca. Naringueira feitas de pena de gavião real. Grandes brincos, colar e braçadeiras completam o trativo cerimonial [Pintura neste texto]. In: ______. Arte plumária e máscaras de danças dos índios brasileiros. São Paulo: Artes Gráficas Bradesco, 1971. Estampa 10: Índios Borôro.

how to quote this text

Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. Clothing And Ornaments Of Brazilian Indians. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009