The traditional dress of Bolivia is very similar to that in nearby Peru. There may be regional variations within the country.
For highland Indian women of indigenous descent, the traditional skirt, known as a pollera, was originally a garment that they were forced to wear by colonial rulers. It was intended to easily identify and set apart the often looked down upon native community. Spanish colonizers made native women discard their previous traditional clothes in something more in keeping with what was being worn back in Spain by the poorer people. Prior to this, the national dress was altogether simpler, consisting of a long tunic belted around the middle.
The pollera is a colourful, layered, pleated skirt in the style of a Spanish peasant. Despite its origins, it is seen as a status symbol for women who are proud of their indigenous heritage and roots. Even after the revolutions, the women of Bolivia continued to wear this style of dress, with many women seeing it as a part of their cultural identity.Women saw the ability to be able to change and adapt an old-fashioned style of skirt as empowerment. With the pollera, women usually wear a manta, which is a type of brightly coloured silky shawl, a frilly blouse and a practical apron. They use leg warmers to prevent themselves from becoming too cold. To finish the outfit, a bowler hat from 19th century Europe is worn. These are known locally as bombin. These hats are often also in different vibrant colours. These perch on top of the head, with no means to fasten them. The overall effect is very vivid and striking.
Whilst many older women wear this outfit for their everyday business, leisure and chores, for many younger women, western style clothing is rapidly becoming the norm, with jeans and t-shirts most commonly worn. The traditional outfit is reserved for special occasions, celebrations, festivals and parties amongst these younger groups. Reasons most commonly cited for abandoning the traditional outfit include women going to study in larger cities and feeling more comfortable in universal styles of dress in such settings. Also, young women fear that they may be viewed as being less intelligent and able, and face discrimination because of their traditional dress. It is widely believed that to be successful and taken seriously, especially when seeking a professional career, that they must conform to more global dress codes. A bit part of it is a want to blend into the crowd.
Cost may also sometimes be a factor; not only are the items expensive compared to the average wages, but also they must be accessorized with the finest jewelry, usually gold. In rural areas, however, the traditional clothing is the usual standard of dress, with many young women coming from families where the females wear this outfit every day. This can lead to disputes over dress between the generations, with parents afraid that eventually the Bolivian dress customs will be lost.
Indigenous Bolivian men typically wear light cotton trousers, which are more often than not homemade. These are accompanied with ponchos in a range of bright and vibrant colours. On the head, they usually wear a chulla, which is a woolen cap. Some men wear sandals, whilst other wear nothing on the feet, going barefoot, even in the colder weather conditions.
As with younger women, younger indigenous men are also starting to adopt more western modern standards of dress. This is more noticeable in the larger cities and within educational establishments, and the reasons for the change are as for the female population. However, to display pride in his indigenous roots, the then new president wore a traditional Bolivian male’s outfit when he was elected in 2006. In rural areas, and within older generations, the traditional dress is still often worn for everyday matters.
Unlike in many other countries, traditional dress is not only worn for the tourists, although it does make for a beautiful and interesting sight, as well as fascinating pictures. In Bolivia, if one sees someone, male or female, wearing the traditional costume this is their regular clothing that they will wear almost every day to live their lives.
Whilst everyone will want a picture of the lovely traditional Bolivian outfits, it is polite and respectful to ask someone before taking their pictures. Some people, especially in the Latin American countries and in the older generations are very superstitious about cameras and the practice of taking photographs.