Making a Maya King Costume
We had this vision of a Maya king in a jaguar skin cloak with a huge, colorful headdress striding through Time Square on the book’s launch day in New York City. We talked it over with our niece Niki (who’s had some experience making circus costumes) and she agreed to try her hand at bringing it to life.
We sat down with Niki and pored over hundreds of photographs of Maya sculpture, stone carvings, pieces of pottery and wall paintings. No fragment of a real ancient Maya headdress or outfit has survived, so we needed to start by understanding the Maya aesthetic and iconography. We were also trying to figure out what materials they might have used to make their extravagant ceremonial costumes.
Kings were often depicted with huge, tall, headdresses festooned with the three foot long iridescent tail feathers of the quetzal bird. You needed that kind of headgear to been seen when standing a hundred feet above the crowds on the top platform of a pyramid. They also favored wild hair arrangements with ponytails shooting out at odd angles, jade jewelry - including enormous ear spools - and a liberal use of jaguar pelts.
Of course, quetzal birds and jaguars are now both endangered species, but we sourced some acceptable substitutes on Ebay. We would stay up until the early hours bidding on tail feathers from molting parrots. We also found a genuine Las Vegas showgirl headdress (to dismantle and use as a base) and a huge cowhide printed in a jaguar pattern.
With an eccentric array of raw materials now at her disposal, Niki got to work. First of all, she deconstructed the showgirl headdress. Then she built onto it a wire framework shaped like a corn cob to mimic the preferred head shape of Ancient Maya nobility. Next came the hair. Niki spent days braiding artificial hair extensions onto the wire skull.
The front of the headdress is composed around a papier mâché jaguar mask from Mexico and a homemade model of the bird of heaven. Niki baked tray after tray of jade-like sculpty-clay ornaments and tried the feathers this way and that. The end result has an over-the top quality, like the jungle personified, and it captures the flamboyant magnificence of a Classic era king in all his feathered and pelted glory.
The costume had its first big public outing in the corner window at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble in New York City. Since then it has led a parade, appeared on TV in Arizona and been worn in schools all across the country. It never fails to draw attention.
Is it historically accurate?
It’s not modeled on one particular costume, nor is it based on the style of a particular city-state, but it does embody many of the characteristics that were common in the clothing of Classic era kings. In the absence of any authentic reference, we heeded the advice of Robina D’Arcy-Fox, historian and designer extraordinaire, whose own costumes are authentic to the last detail. “If you claim to be historically accurate, there will always be someone who’ll quibble with you,” she said. “Just capture your own vision of the spirit of a Maya king. No one can argue with that.”
Making the headdress for our Maya king costume: it took a wire-formed skull, twenty packets of hair extensions, one Las Vegas showgirl headdress, at least six different kinds of feathers, sculpey clay beads, a bucket of paper maché, assorted seashells, painted styrofoam flare shapes, taxidermy eyes and countless packets of glue sticks.
The King costume in action at an event in Vermont