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The traditional and the non-traditional of the Chola’s outfit

The outfit is the most important symbol of identity that characterizes the chola clothes in Bolivia.
By: Walter Sánchez
Instituto Investigaciones Antropológicas
UMSS
Spanish women with Polleras and fringed shawl (La esfera, Nº 125, 1916)
Photo: Walter Sánchez 

Four garments of their outfit are the most distinctive and considered as “typical”: the hat, the mantilla or fringed shawl, the skirt and the shoes. But is this outfit truly typical or is it imported? In nowadays Bolivia, many dichotomies are “in” such as: modern/ traditional, cambas / collas, indigenous/nonindigenous, right/left; oligarchs/plebeians. In this same perspective the plurality between the “self” vs. the “alien” eliminates the dynamics of cultural interactions within the Bolivian society and shows not only a clumsy thinking, but also shows how dangerous to simplify the reality could be instead of starting to understand the complexity of cultural processes to promote or build a sense of identity.
If we start with the hat, you could say that it is a borsalino worn by English men in the late nineteenth century introduced in Bolivia around 1910.This fleece bowler hat, imported by local business houses and made in American, Italian and German factories began to become fashionable amongst chola women of La Paz since 1920; mainly the white hats, and according to oral tradition, it was a mistake since the first hats were imported for men that belonged to La Paz elite. The blanket is a garment similar to the “fringed shawl”. It was popular in Spain during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In an article written by Joseph M. Salverría and published in the Esfera (Spain, Year III, No. 125, 1916) magazine, sold in stores in La Paz and Cochabamba, highlights that this blanket worn by women in that country was considered a typical garment, but then he questions this affirmation saying: “Is this fine crepe shawl that we take for granted that is typical from here exactly a garment from Spain? “

Chola Paceña with Pollera and high tops shoes, Beginning of nineteen century.
Photo: Max T. Vargas
Making a historical overview of the same notes he writes: “In Venice, as soon as the curious impatience led me to walk those charmed streets, I was suddenly stunned; a pretty Venetian slender woman was wearing around her body a tight black shawl with floating and graceful fringes, as she was a woman from Valencia- Seville or Madrid. Many young Venetian women crossed in front of my eyes, wearing identical shawls; shawls that were completely identical to those in Spain.
In that case, what opinions do we have concerning originality? The truth is that people communicate with each other much more than we think. The people pass on ideas, feelings, and religion thoughts in the same way they pass on fashion and clothing styles.
The truth is that people communicate with each other much more than we think. The people pass on ideas, feelings, and religion thoughts in the same way they passes on fashion and clothing styles.
Generally, what we think is a regional creation, is no more than a regression or a standstill of outfits and shapes that were once used by distinguished and elegant people. The lower classes accepted the outfits of the rich people with a rough and late resistance, but once they have accepted them, they don’t leave them easily. We have taken the crepe shawls until we Hispanicize them”.
Although in Bolivia it is introduced as a Hispanic garment, its previous precedents came from a doubtful European origin.
The introduction of the skirt (pollera) as a garment, takes place around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however the model of the current Chola skirt is the result of the influence of young Spanish women fashion during the first decade of the twentieth century. This Hispanic skirt had horizontal pleats and was a part of the outfit together with the “fringed shawl” which consolidates as an emblem for the chola identity during that decade.
High heeled women’s shoes, high tops or not, are also the results of the Spanish fashion in the early twentieth century. This type of shoes was so popular in Spain that big factories like “Calzados La Imperial”- that owned many factories across Madrid, Bilbao, San Sebastian, y Leon- provided several models worked in leather and patent leather that were exported to America arriving, without a doubt in Bolivia.
At the present, these four garments, products of various influences and adoptions in different historical moments, are considered emblems of “own” and “traditional” identity of chola women.
Massive circulation magazines as the already mentioned above: La Esfera. Ilustración Mundial includes not only shoes advertising -that influenced the local shoemakers, mainly from the city of La Paz- but emphasized the distinction that shoes gave to women. The impact of this shoe archetype is so big that in 1920, important shoe factories of this city began to produce them. We should note that if in the first instance women from the elite use them, very soon is the young chola that uses them.

Advertising (La Esfera Nº 125. 1916.)
Photo: Walter Sánchez
At the present, these four garments, products of various influences and adoptions in different historical moments, are considered emblems of “own” and “traditional” identity “of chola women. A non-essentialist view of these costumes shows the great capacity of urban mestizo women (cholas) to reinterpret and convert external elements to their repertoire into emblems of cultural identity. This puts into evidence, the changeability of these women that constantly cross cultural boundaries without problems, and adapting foreign elements and give them their own sensibility to incorporate and live this “modernity”, and at the same time invent and assume an own and new “tradition”. All in all: being postmodern before post modernism arrives.

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