Saturday, June 14, 2014


One of the things that sticks in the mind of most visitors to La Paz, is the traditional dress of many of the local women - an over sized-crowned bowler hat with satin binding, worn rakishly on the head and a long decorative skirt called a pollera or often 2,3 or more of them! These distinctive looking residents of the capital city are known as cholas or cholitas and have been wearing this traditional dress for many generations.
Cholita with her "BOMBIN"
The bowler hat, or Bombin as it is locally called, always seems too small for the owner and for some unknown reason is usually perched on top of the head rakishly tilted to one side . These hats are a source of pride for the cholas and theft of these hats straight from the wearers head is not unknown in La Paz; at a cost ranging from US$50 (wool felt) to US$200 (vicuna fur felt) it is not so surprising,  US$50 is about what an average Bolivian earns each month. The hats always seem sparkling clean and brand new, and it's not uncommon to see cholas covering their hats with plastic wrap when it rains to keep them that way.
I love the energy in this photograph by Rochelle Comeaux. the personalized bombin, the proud display of family gold, the twirling of the petticoat and the innocents of the freshly cut flowers.

For generations, the cholitas (indigenous Aymara and Quechua women) were refused entry to taxis, restaurants and even public buses. They were forbidden to walk in the main square of La Paz and in the wealthy suburbs of Zona Sud. But, today with a renewed confidence gained from education, these ladies are becoming a driving force in modern Bolivia. These former downtrodden, discriminated against, "maids to the middle class" are gaining clout with the economic and political world of Bolivia.
If you want to buy a Chola hat in La Paz, get your noggin over to Callejon Tarapaca, a small street in the Garita de Lima area. It is packed with milliners making and selling hats. This is also where the cholitas go to have their Bombins spruced up for special occasions.

The wearing of the hat originates from the times when they were in fashion in Europe and were also worn by the upper class Spaniard settlers in La Paz. For a long time people of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood were not respected by neither the Spanish nor the indigenous population, as pure blood was seen as the ideal by both sides. The Spanish thought the indigenous to be simple and savage people whilst the indigenous despised the Spanish for the invasion of their homelands and maltreatment of them. Due to there being less Spanish women than Spanish men it was inevitable that some would take wives from the indigenous population and as time went on the mestizo population (mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) started to increase. The mixed race women became known as Cholas and the traditional dress was most likely adapted from a mix of the Spanish fashion of the time and the indigenous traditional dresses in order to give themselves a sense of identity. Originally the men were known as cholos but today this is seen as a derogatory term and is not often heard.
The long flowing skirt that is worn by the cholas is known as a pollera and is often covered in sequins with decorative seams. The poller is pull high up on the bum to create the illusion of a bigger buttocks. Beneath the poller is usually a layer of underskirts called centros. As many as 20 polleras and centros can be worn together (not an uncommon amount in festivals) although a combination totalling 3 or 4 is more likely. This can make these tough looking women seem extremely wide and definitely makes them hard to pass on the narrow streets!
The proud cholita uniform. Bowler hat, tightly pulled back hair, big gold jewelry, shawl, skirt and petticoat.
To the unknowing tourist it seems like many of the cholas wear very similar clothing and that fashion must be an unknown entity to them, but in fact each year there are new styles of pollera, different fabrics in season and even chola fashion shows. Limbert Cussi, is the leading Cholita fashion designer. Cholitas can be founds all over Bolivia but the hat and shirts change with each region. The style of the hat pretty much stays the same from year to year, possibly due to the cost.
Whilst the chola style of dress is still very much in evidence in La Paz, like so many places, things are changing . More and more the young girls are turning to western style dress and forsaking the traditional costume of their mothers, at least in their day to day lives. This is to be expected really as more indigenous are entering higher education and pursuing professional careers. Culturally it is expected that they wear more business like attire to become successful. You will find many indigenous girls in the universities of La Paz these days but are unlikely to find any wearing a pollera and hat.
Maybe for the first time since the chola traditional dress was adopted a difference of opinion regarding fashion has developed between daughters and mothers but there doesn't seem to be a danger of the traditional costume disappearing altogether. It still features strongly in festivals and formal celebrations for both young and old alike.

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