The fancy, colorful dresses that women wear at festival times in Panama are known as polleras. This was the everyday, peasant dress in Southern Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries. They showed up in Panamá about 1642 and later appeared with variations in Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia.
This dress was initially forced upon Panamanian women by the Spanish conquerors who insisted that women wear a woolen white skirt as they did in Spain. This was too heavy for the tropical climate, so the women took matters into their own hands. They switched to cotton and linen and then elaborately decorated these skirts and added a blouse. Eventually, the pollera disappeared in Spain.
In Panamá, the true pollera is created in either the province of Los Santos or Herrera, both in central Panamá. Although the making of these dresses has spread to the other provinces, an authentic pollera must come from either Los Santos or Herrera. Each pollera is hand sewn and can take up to two years to make.
There are two styles of pollera in Panamá – the Gala and the Montuno. The Gala is the luxurious, intricate pollera costing up to $25,000. The Montuno is a less elaborate, local community pollera. Each is worn with elaborate jewelry which is often passed down from generation to generation. These consist of combs for the headdress, necklaces, earrings, collars, bracelets, and special chains. Seven gold necklaces are normally worn and can cost over $7,000.
The hairstyle is just as important as the dress and jewelry. The hair is parted in the middle and combed to each side and then braided. The headdress is usually composed of a hat or combs, or one with tembleques, combs and more jewels.
Traditional tembleques are made with soft wire to which are attached pearls, fancy stones, crystals and even fish scales. This video shows the jewelry, dancing, and music associated with the pollera:
In 1961, Panamá passed Law 50 that declared July 22 as the day of the National Festival of the Pollera. Held in Las Tablas, there are competitions for the most beautiful and elaborate pollera. This Festival is intended to keep alive this tradition that is so unique to Panamá.
Fact: Panamanians do not send Christmas cards.
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