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Bolivia

Bolivian Cholitas and the very weird story of their bowler hats

Cholitas– Bolivians from the Indian Aymara tribe – are what we usually naturally associate with Bolivia in our minds. They look fabulously in their colorful dresses and bowler hats on their heads. They are the symbol of Bolivia and an extension of its history and tradition. The Aymara culture, which they are derived from, is absolutely fascinating. Its major principles are three rules: work is value, you cannot lie and you cannot steal. They are treated as guide-posts in life, therefore the work ethos in this culture is really strong.

The view of the women, trading potatoes and meat on the streets, makes the first assumption that they are simple, uneducated “huckstresses”. And you can’t be further from the truth! The Bolivian women have their heads screwed on and run many businesses. They trade on the streets because it’s a part of their culture and also the way to socialize. Among people of Aymara tribe work is a value itself, so even selling chocolate bars in a kiosk is better and more respectable than sitting idly at home. Cholitas have various sources of income and they combine them perfectly. They own grocery stores, electronic stores, restaurants etc. They are truly enterprising women.

Supposedly one of the reasons why they have lots of children is the fact that in business Cholitas do not trust strangers. Therefore a numerous family guarantees that their children would run family businesses and that they would not have to allow strangers into their enterprises. Everything is premeditated.

However, what draws attention most are extraordinary garments of the Bolivian women and their fancy bowler hats – they are a permanent part of the local landscape and the first thing you’ll notice after your arrival.

Since the bowler hats appeared in 1849 in London, many famous individuals have been connected to this kind of a headgear, for instance: Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, and in the modern cartoon style even Mr. Potato from Toy Story 2. However, none of them wore his hat in such a stylish fashion like Cholitas of Southern American do – and in particular the Bolivian women.

It all began in another part of the work – Manchester, to be specific – soon after inventing bowler hats. Two brothers manufactured a whole line of these hats, wanting to sell them to British railway workers, who in that time were stationed in Bolivia.

When the hats were delivered to Southern America it turned out that they were too small for British heads. The enterprising Britons tried to convince the Bolivian men to wear them but to no effect. In order not to lose their goods, they shifter their attention to – let’s be honest, the group that is most prone to fashion – the women. At first, they were not that positive, when they saw these peculiar, small hats that held only on the top of the head. So, the brothers manipulated them and used their need to be trendy and fabricated a story that they treated to the Bolivian women. According to the story, all trendy and fashionable women in Europe wore these hats and it was an absolute “must have”, like would say nowadays. You may have guessed already that it caught on. It really did!

Nowadays, the bowler hat is the Bolivian national pride and is an inherent part of the traditional women’s garment. The original bowler hat may cost even 1000 USD! Because of the price, many modern women wear other hats, like wide brimmed hats or woolen caps.

There is also a legend that those women, who wear bowler hats, do not have problems with fertility. In Bolivia, which is a country filled with superstition and old wives’ tales, such things are treated with great respect. The way of wearing the hat is also important and there is a funny story connected to that. Do you think that Cholitas just put the hat on without looking and hit the city? Oh no, not at all! The place, where the hat is attached to the head, is a clear sign of the marital status of the woman. If it’s on the top of the head, it means that the woman is married. If the bowler hat is on the side of the head, it means that the woman is single or a widow. And Facebook also influenced this tradition, Bolivians joke that the hat on the back of the head means that the relationship is “complicated”.

Because Bolivia is culturally diverse, there is not typical Bolivian set of clothes. The garments vary, depending on the region, income, climate and – of course – personal preferences.

The traditional Cholita dress is quite large and consists of, among others, the outer, plated skirt (la pollera). The wider it is, the better, so sometimes even 8 meters of the material is used to make only one skirt! The Bolivians say that “big is beautiful”. Therefore being plump – emphasized with clothes that optically make the hips wider – is desired, because it’s associated with fertility. The dress is ankle-high, for two reasons. First of all, Bolivia is a mountainous country and in most of places it’s generally cold, with harsh conditions, so the long dress keeps the women warm.

The second reason is a little less practical. Well, in Bolivia the most attractive part of the body are… calves. Massive, muscled female calves draw local men like magnets. That’s why Cholitas hide them to excite the imagination of Bolivian men (Hmm, what calves does she hide under that skirt? – what probably the local male would think). If the woman wants to tease a man, she spins around and raises her skirt a little to show her calves.

Supposedly the ideal woman is the one that laden with string bags and with her child on her back climbs uphill. It means that she is a hardworking person with really strong calves.

Almost every woman I meet here wears colorful earrings and brooches (joyas). Some of them are really expensive, so, for example, during parades or fetes the wealthy Cholitas hire bodyguards, whose task is to prevent theft.

The term “cholita” had a negative undertone and was used as an insult at indigenous girls. However, in the course of time and because of the strong pressure put on promoting minorities and fighting racism, the term became softer and today it’s used mostly jokingly.

In Bolivia, despite strong western fashion trend influence, the Cholitas kept their traditional clothing. The fashion we can see today is a result of Spanish inquisition that forced the natives to dress after the European fashion. The garments of the Cholitas were considered typical for poor women. Today the social status is of no importance here. Many of the traditionally dressed Cholitas are wealthy, have their own businesses and they wear their clothes with pride and self-confidence.

I don’t know if you do but I love discovering places where tradition is cultivated and you can feel the pride of local history, culture and specific esprit de corps. Bolivia is one of such places and it’s more than enough to be worth visiting.

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