This Christmas I went to Panama after 9 years of absence. I live in Madrid and with 4 children and a husband a trip to Panama is something you have to meditate on and save for. Well, that’s what we did last year, so off we went on the 23rd; the whole family, including my parents in law (it was their first time in Panama).
One of the main reasons to go was to celebrate the 15 years of my daughter Pilar. For me is very important to keep the traditions with which I grew up as a child, and there were only one place to properly celebrate Pilar’s quinceaños: Panama.
The party was great, very similar, I guess, to the sweet sixteen parties at the US, but we did something different. I cousin of mine (well, his wife Jessie) arranged for Pilar and Isabel to wear the traditional dress of Panama, the Pollera. We went to my cousin’s place and got Pilar dressed, then we went to the ruins of the first settlement of Panama City, usually called “Panama la Vieja”. I took the photographs and despite the heat, everything went great.
Here I bring some photographs and an excerpt of the book “The pollera from Panama” written by Dora P. de Zarate where she explains the origin of this garment.
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 Español, published an article, “La Pollera Panameña,” 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 Andalucía, 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 Español 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.
THE POLLERA, A DRESS OF THE COMMON PEOPLE
After reading the references left by writers interested in the pollera, it is possible to appreciate one important fact; every writer insisted that it was the dress of the lower classes. Lady Mallet described it as “the usual attire of the woman servants; it was especially the dress of the wet nurses who nursed the children of the family. The dress was generally white, almost without adornments. The cooks and wash ladies used colored skirts, usually purple, with a white blouse. . . It was a custom among some families to decorate the clothes of the domestic help with special types of handwork; some used an embroidery stitch, others a cross-stitch, and others applique.”
If we pay special attention to the article in the Diario de Madrid referring to celebrations here in Panama mentioned by D. Samuel Lewis, we find it speaks of thirty women of the town richly dressed in polleras. It does not say the higher class, but the townspeople. Reclus also referred to the town: “the colored women wear the pollera” and “the women wear the old dress of the criollas.” Who are the criollas for Reclus? The person born in America of Spanish descent? The native aristocracy? From the drawings he presents in his writings, the criolla appears to be neither Spanish nor the native aristocracy. The pollera was the dress of the common people, and here lies its strength, its continuity, and its permanence. As a creation of the common people, it reflected the vitality and spirit of that class, and extended into every city, town, and farm. From its humble beginning the pollera gradually was adopted by the women in the upper classes. Once accepting the pollera, this class adopted it as their own almost as if it had always been their traditional costume. Today the daughters of the aristocracy are just as proud to wear their polleras during days of fiestas as the women in rural areas”.