Polleras and Montunos

There are many folk traditions that have been adopted as truly characteristic of Panama’s nationality, but among all of these symbols probably no single expression stands higher than the pollera, the women’s national dress. Its flowing skirt, abundance of handwork, and ornate jewelry mark the dress as one of the most beautiful costumes in the world, admired and cherished by all Panamanians.

polleras-y-montunos

The Pollera is the most beautiful and admired national costume of the Americas.
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  • Ornaments or “tembleques”

    The ornaments, tembleques for the hair are exquisite. A large tortoise shell comb embellished with pearls and gold is worn on top of the head and resembles a crown. Photo by Luis Vaz.
  • Ground cloth

    The experts agree that the ground cloth must be white and the 12 yards of material required can be fine linen, cambric or voile. Photo by Allan Hawkins
  • The motifs

    The motifs may be formed by birds, flowers, fruit, vines, garlands or native designs.
  • Hand-sewn applique

    The height of elegance is achieved when these designs are executed in talco en sombra which is hand-sewn applique however, they can be also created in cross stitch or embroidery. Photo by Luis Vaz.
  • Cost of the gala costumes

    The cost of the gala costumes runs into hundreds and sometimes, thousands of dollars, depending on the hand work involved. Picture by Luis Vaz..
  • Basic pieces of the pollera

    The basic pieces of the pollera are the gown or upper part, the skirt or lower part and the petticoat or underskirt. Photo by Luis Vaz.
  • Gown or blouse

    The gown or blouse consists of two ruffles, applique or embroidered in favored color and design edged with valencienne lace and gracefully draped from handmade thread lace insertion at the neckline. Photo by Luis Vaz.
  • Centered pom-poms

    Wool is woven in and out of the insertions and two big pom-poms are centered at the chest and back. The wool must be the same color as the shoes, which are heel-less and made from velvet or satin. Photo by Anel gomez.
  • The skirt

    The skirt is two wide pieces ornamented with the chosen motif and joined together with insertion and bordered with insertion and lace. It is very fully gathered on a waist band.
  • The gold hairpin

    The gold hairpins and tembleques is the key piece, which are quivering pins and worn in pairs, are placed on the head to give the appearance of a radiant halo.
  • Graceful streamers

    Four wide ribbons hang from the waist, two in the center front and two in the back״ they are called gallardetes, meaning graceful streamers.Photo by Alfredo Maiquez
  • The petticoat

    The petticoat is often as elaborate as the skirt but is always pure white and the trimming is hand-made thread lace.
  • pollera13l

    The jewelry adorning the neck usually consists of a pearl or coral rosary, a flat gold chain or cadena chata a chain of gold coins and a gold cross on a black velvet ribbon worn as a choker. Photo by Charlie's.
  • La Pollera in carnaval

    Four days before Ash Wednesday are carnival days and La Pollera comes into its own.
  • Gown or blouse

    La Pollera has to be seen to appreciate the work and imagination that produces this loveliest of dresses. Photo by Luis Vaz
  • Grace and enchantment

    The grace and enchantment of the Panamanian women is never more in evidence that when she is wearing La Pollera.

ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF THE POLLERA
Many people have spoken about the pollera. Some have indicated the exact point of origin for the costume, but such exactness is not compatible with folk material since one of the main characteristics of folklore is spontaneous and anonymous origin. When people become aware of the existence of a folk tradition, a great deal of time has already passed during which the tradition has grown and developed. The pollera had an origin. Along with the other traditional Latin American dresses, the pollera descended from the Spanish dress of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In response to our investigation into the origin of the pollera, Miss Nieves de Hoyos, director of the Museo del Pueblo Espanol, published an article, “La Pollera Panamena,” in the Revista de Indias of December, 1963. She wrote,”I sincerely believe the answer is simple; the origin is in Spain, but not from the regional Spanish dress, which contrary to general opinion did not develop its current form until the eighteenth century or later.

The pollera in Panama evolved from the Spanish feminine dress of the seventeenth century, not from the court dress with its grand hoops covered with velvets and embroidered silks embellished with laces, gold, and silver threads – the dress which immediately comes to mind to most people because they have frequently seen the pictures of Velazquez. In the seventeenth century, as in any other time, contemporary with the beautiful court dresses there was the daily house dress, which in this epoch was generally white with a full skirt of two or three ruffles embroidered or appliqued in floral designs. This description is, simply, the pollera.As for the pollera montuna or the dress for daily use, a cotton skirt printed in floral design is commonly used in tropical climates and during summer seasons in colder regions. We should think of the skirts from Andalucia, but not of the close-fitting ruffled skirt of the flamenco dancers, nor the traditional cloth of the mountain regions – rather of the skirt of the common women in any city, who used a pollera montuna. In the Museo del Pueblo Espanol there is a woman’s dress of Cordoba, made of percale with a small printed pattern, very full and with a ruffle, which cannot be differentiated from the pollera montuna of Panama. The complicated hair style which uses gold combs makes us think of the hair styles from Valencia and Salamanca where they do not use combs but large, richly decorated pins. Naturally the hair style and hair ornaments found in Panama would not be an imitation, but with the passage of time they would change and acquire a character different from their Spanish predecessors.”

The important fact is the originality and direction the dress developed in Panama, which made it distinct from typical dresses in other Latin countries with similar roots in Spain. It is known that the same seed can produce fruit of different flavor and quality according to the earth in which it falls and the conditions under which it grows. In Panama, time, various ethnic groups, geography, and climate combined to transform our dress into the attractive and pleasing pollera we see today.How did the pollera come to be the dress it is today? At what moment did the dress of our Spanish or mestizo grandmothers change into this lovely dress of the tropics? The answer lies in the passage of time, which allowed a gradual evolution of the pollera into what we have today. It is fitting to propose several questions concerning the origin and evolution of the pollera. Did it appear in Old Panama, as some people think, or in Acla and Nata? These regions are not the centers for making polleras today. Was it truly the dress for the servant class? If so, by what process was it adopted as the regular dress of peasants in the rural towns of the central provinces and mountain regions?

Provinces of Los Santos and Herrera jealously guard the pollera tradition, so much so that models from these provinces have been adopted by all regions of the Republic. Why should these regions be the guardians and not the towns in which the pollera supposedly originated? Year after year, the seamstresses of the central provinces have sent innumerable polleras to Panama City, Colon, Chiriqui, and all points of the Isthmus. One must see the satisfaction and pride the woman dressed in pollera, empollerada, displays as she affirms that her dress was made in one of these provinces, and her confidence in the knowledge that her pollera follows all aspects of tradition. Since Herrera and Los Santos Provinces have conserved other folklore elements descending from Spain, it could explain why the pollera has been so carefully preserved in these areas.

EARLY REFERENCES TO THE POLLERA
Throughout the writings of a number of national investigators who have been interested in this theme, there are some early references to the pollera. These writers include Lady Matilde Obarrio de Mallet, whose writings were published in the Loteria magazine; Miss Nicolle Garay, who presented data in the book Tradiciones y Cantares de Panama written by D. Narciso Garay; Rodrigo Miro; Aurelio A. Dutary; Ruben D. Carles; D. Ernesto Morales; D. Roman B. Reyes; D. Samuel lewis; and poets such as Tomas Martin Feullet, Ana Isabel Illueca, and others-too many to enumerate. Among foreigners we have Armando Reclus, a Frenchman who came to explore the Isthmus and make early canal surveys for France.Matilde Obarrio de Mallet affirmed that the pollera must have been worn in Old Panama. She did not offer any documents to substantiate her statement other than her own writings in which she delcared that her great-greandmothers had polleras. In addition to information concerning the pollera, Lady Mallet describes colonial life in Panama.D. Samuel Lewis found a reference to the pollera in the Spanish newspaper Diario de Madrid, March 12 and 13, 1815. The article describes celebrations which occurred in Panama to commeorate the restoration of Fernando VII to the throne. He quotes, “The picture of the King was placed in an exquisitely decorated cart, which left from the courthouse on its way to Santa Ana, pulled by thirty women of the town richly dressed in polleras.” If the statement is true, this is the oldest written reference to the pollera known to the present time. The article appeared in 1915, but the celebrations occurred in July, 1814, when D. Pedro de Olesarraga arrived on the Isthmus with the news of the restoration. The time of the celebration was seven years before Panama was to gain her independence from Spain in 1821. Already the pollera was known by the name we know it today and was the dress customarily used for festive occasions.

Armando Reclus, Director of the French Commission that made explorations throughout the Isthmus, described the pollera in almost complete detail. One must admire this French engineer who divided his time between scientific investigations, and a study of the customs which he found in his travels. Referring to celebrations commemorating Panama’s independence from Spain, Reclus writes, “The colored ladies wear the pollera, a skirt gathered at the waist with large ruffles which are very full.” Later, reviewing his experiences in the Darien, he adds, “the women wear the old dress of the criollas, that is, a white petticoat made of lightweight cotton, adorned with one or more ruffles on which are stamped brightly colored floral designs. Over the shorth sleeved blouse are three ruffles similar in appearance but so low that the upper chest and back are left practically nude. Their hair is parted down the middle, drawn to either side and braided if not too curly; but if the hair is extremely curly or wooly and cannot be braided, they divide the hair into ten sections and make little puffs of each one. Many of the women proudly wear large gold combs and earrings made in Choco area (Darien province), decorated with low cost pearls from the pearl fisheries of Panama, but the favorite arrangement is natural flowers in the hair. Frequently they wear a straw hat, similar in appearance to a man’s hat; most of them do not wear shoes, reserving tiny green and pink slippers for fiestas.” It would be difficult to find a better description of the pollera than this one difficult to find a better description of the pollera than this one presented by Reclus, who viewed his surroundings with sympathy and interest.

From the middle of the nineteenth century until the present, references to the pollera occur frequently. Designs made by artists around 1879 are still preserved, and their details coincide with descriptions of the dress written during that period. Two prints portraying a lady in pollera wearing a hat and shawl are included in N. Garay’s book; the drawings were done by the author’s father, D. Epifanio Garay. Another example occurs in the descriptions left by Armando Reclus.

    3 Comments

  1. Interesante informacion e images de nuestra pollera y traje nacional. Deberian incluir list de neustros grupos folkloicos nacionales e internacionales.

  2. WOW precisely what I had been searching for.
    Arrived here by searching for Panama Polleras!

  3. EXTREMELY interesting!! I always wondered about the Pollera. Can’t wait to have my own one day!!

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