My Peruvian pueblo of Chacas is an incredibly interesting cultural hub where modern Italian meets traditional Quechuan Peruvian. Walking down the dusty dirt road to my plaza, I catch glimpses of young Italian philanthropists sporting long, messy dreadlocks and in the same beat, tiny Peruvian women adorning colorful multi-layered peticoats and tall decorative hats that are typical of the rural Andean mountains of Perú.
Every Sunday, I attend the misa with my host family at the beautiful Sanctuary Mama Ashu, our town’s Catholic church, which is the birthplace of Padre Ugo’s Operation Matto Grosso. The misa is a fashion runway where women wrap themselves in their most beautiful polleras to modestly show off as they lift their hands towards God and sing Quechuan hymns.
Polleras are colorful, full skirts made of a wool fabric called bayeta. The trim of the skirt is embroidered with colorful designs such as flowers that are hand sewn by women in my town. For festivals, women wear multiple layers of polleras at one time. Some women wear up to 10 layers! In my site, a handmade pollera costs about S/70 or $23. A Peace Corps staff member came to visit me and told me this is a great deal because usually they cost S/200-S/300 each.
The pollera is typically paired with a pair of leggings, a hand knitted Alpaca yarn cardigan, and a decorative and flamboyant manta. The manta is worn like a superhero cape and sometimes, when you look closely, you can see a tuft of fluffy, black baby hair and a pair of beautiful round eyes poking out of the opening at the top of the mom’s neck. If not hair and eyes, then usually, a cute little shoe is dangling from the bottom. With three tight knots, the manta becomes the perfect baby carrier. You’ve got to love functional fashion.
One other too-frequent-to-be-a-coincidence fashion choice I have noticed is that all traditional women wear their hair in long braids. I have yet to meet a traditional woman that does not have gorgeous, long hair that I have grown to envy (This envy led me to getting the worst haircut of my life. I said, “Just cut the tips so that I can grow out beautiful long hair like a Peruvian”…the tips were not just cut….) After doing some research, I found that long hair is a sign of health and well-being in the Quechua culture. Also, traditionally, braids were a way to signify a women’s marital status. Two braids meant that a woman was married and one braid meant she was single. If your hair wasn’t thick, women would add yarn and ribbon to create length and thickness and distract from that flaw. Now, however, women do not use braids to communicate their availability. For instance, my host mom typically just wears one braid and it is not uncommon to see little girls wearing two braids.
I asked why women tie their braids together and the answer I got was that some women like the style, but some women tie them together to keep them from getting in the way.
No outfit is complete without the finishing touch of the hat. Functioning to protect the face from the strong, sierra sun, the sombrero comes in many shapes and forms. The most popular Chacas style is what my host family calls “sombrero con cintas” and I’ve heard others call “sombrero campesino.” It is a tall hat with a ribbon that is folded to the shape of a rose adorned to the side of it.
As a fashion design major, I am always geeking out about the styles I see walking the streets of Chacas, and I am completely in love. There is no regard for pattern or color coordination, but somehow, when the women take traditional pieces and throw them all together, it just works. Pink and yellow striped manta with a red and blue pollera? Sure! Why don’t you wear a teal sweater with that!?