Cholitas: The New Bolivian Fashionistas

Picture by: Elena Paco Paredes

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In the Altiplano regions of South America, there is a strong and ancient nation that goes by Aymara’s name. For more than 800 years, they have been the landlords of the highest plateaus in the continent. Resilient, they lived under the submission of two empires, yet their spirit never died.

During the late 15th century, the Incas —the largest kingdom in Pre-Columbian America— were their masters. Afterward, and around the end of the 16th century, they fell under the Spanish empire’s rule. With the birth of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, the remaining Aymaras became laborers for the elite. They never ceased to fight for their rights, but their situation only improved during the 20th century.

While they have been residents of the country’s most important cities since its birth, they were invisible under the colonial shadow. What caused a change in their situation was the Bolivian Revolution of 1952. This event granted the integration of thousands of indigenous peoples into the country’s political and social scenario. Farmers and miners of the Aymara dynasty were now part of an up and coming modern society.

At that moment, their practices and ways of living were very different from their origins. But with part of their integrity back, they began to make their identity glisten in many ways. For the women of the Aymara dynasty, it was an opening to make themselves be seen and heard for the first time.

In the busy streets of El Alto, it is easy to spot them from the crowd. They have a certain air of a time gone by, but the character of their culture stands tall and proud. They are the Cholitas of Bolivia.

Cholitas, Picture by: Kath Watson

The Origin of the Cholita Name

While the name Cholita has an entirely different connotation now, its origins have a bitter taste. Back in colonial times, almost all Aymara women were servants of the Spanish Empire. Like the rest of the people from the tribe, they were considered a marginalized community. 

The name Chola referred to any women of mixed and indigenous race, according to the Spanish lineage system. It was a way to mark every person without pure Spanish descent, and it was a means to measure their privileges.

Being an ethnic person and a woman was not something that granted many liberties at that time. Aymara women had to abandon their clothes and adopt those established by the colonial regime.  A set of skirts, a blouse, a shawl, and a pair of boots became the only garments acceptable to wear for them. In no time, indigenous women blended into the turbulent panorama of the epoch.

Typical Bolivian skirts, Picture by: Laura Facchini

An Attire That Shapes Identity

The inclusive views that came with the 20th century gave them a new space into society, but prejudices prevailed. Aymara women had the right to vote, yet they were not allowed in shops, restaurants, or streets. Many looked at them with disdain, belittling them by calling them Cholitas. But what seemed to upset people the most was their clothing.

It is somewhat ironic that the very same clothes they had to dress by force were afterward the cause for scorn. It seemed like Aymara women adapted well to these costume at a distance, but they did more than that. For 200 years, they continued to wear these fabric layers that were once popular in the Iberian Peninsula. 

They kept using them into the second half of the twentieth century and continue to do so today. It became clear that as time passed, they turned this foreign style into something that belonged to them. As they were responsible for manufacturing their clothes, they crafted a unique version of each garment. 

What used to be an attire from outsiders was transformed into a traditional outfit. Each element became essential and a core asset in the lives of these Andean women.

The Signature Look of The Cholitas

The Skirts

The skirts are the most vital part of the attire. They go by the name of Polleras, and usually, they fall below the knees, with flared pleats. To make it look puffy, they also use several petticoats, which gives Cholitas a very distinct and doll-like appearance. Polleras are very flashy in color and fabric, and most have hand-sewn patterns at the bottom. 

Pictures by: Elene Paco Paredes

The Shawl

The blouse fits the waist and has a sweetheart neckline. It is made with quality fabrics such as lace, finishing in short sleeves. And the shawl —or Manta as they call them— is a light fabric with loose ends. Their motifs and colors always match or complement the Polleras, adding elegance to the outfit.

Pictures by: Eliana Paco Paredes

The Bowler Hat

The attire is only complete with a pair of low heel shoes or flats and the famous bowler hat on top of the head. The hat was the last addition to the traditional Cholita outfit, and its origins are somewhat dubious but very curious nonetheless. 

They fell into the hands of Aymara women at the beginning of the 20th century. Allegedly, a large shipment of hats arrived in the country for railway workers, all in brown color. It was not what they wanted, so the merchants turned to ethnic women and made the hats desirable for them, one way or another. 

Some say the hats became popular because sellers told Cholitas it was good for fertility. Others say they told them these particular hats were all the rage back in Europe. Either way, the headpiece remained and became the best piece of the Cholita look.

Pictures by: Elena Paco Paredes

Cholitas on Vogue

The strong identity that Cholitas portray with their dresses is a sign of their origins. It is a symbol of reinvention and a way to express that hundreds of years of hardships have not taken away their dignity and pride.

In present-day Bolivia, indigenous people have finally started to gain visibility, and their culture has regained the lost strength they once had. This could not have happened if it wasn’t for the long and strenuous battle that many Aymara people have fought to claim their rights. Social and political victories have granted a new generation of Bolivians a chance to be proud of who they are.

Young Cholitas of this era are the first to meet full recognition of their culture. The doors are open for them in every scope of the Bolivian society. And their traditional outfits, which were not too long ago frowned upon and derided, are now a beacon for style and grace. The long braided women of colorful skirts and fancy hats are icons in the national scenario. 

This timeless look has brought forward a movement within the fashion industry that has shaped Cholita trends and clothing collections. Among thousands of Bolivian textile makers, some names have even managed to stand out. Aymara fashion designers have conquered local and international catwalks with great success.

Famous Cholita designers such as Rosario Aguilar, Glenda Yanez, and Eliana Paco Paredes are breaking grounds in the high couture world. Their vision seeks to develop the traditional look into something that touches the minds and hearts of everyone. All of their designs are both a social and political statement of authentic Bolivian culture.

Eliana Paco Paredes parade

By Amalia

By Amalia

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