Andean girls from Peru

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Andean South America

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every week. This week, we’ll be looking at traditional clothing from the Andean States in South America.

South America, the world’s fourth-largest continent in landmass, comprises 12 independent countries and 3 dependencies. The continent is typically divided into 4 regions; they are, the Andean States, Caribbean South America, the Guianas and the Southern Cone. This post will focus on the dresses from the Andean States.

The Andean States refer to all countries connected by the Andes mountain range. These countries are Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Many of these countries are also considered to be part of other South American sub-regions. So, for the sake of this post, we shall only consider the countries that aren’t part of any other sub-region, such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

An Introduction to Clothing in the Andean States

Before anything else, textiles were the first art form to have been developed in the Andes. The earliest evidence of textiles not only in the Andes but all of South America comes from the Guitarrero Cave in Peru. There, pieces of interlaced textile were found which dated back to 5780 BC.

interlaced fabric found in Peru
Fabric found from Guitarrero Cave. Image Credit: Digital Commons

Since then, the Andeans have developed more advanced methods to produce fabric.

Clothes and textiles in general were initially made with local reeds. There is evidence that indigenous groups from Ecuador and Peru once used to wear bark-cloth in the form of body wraps, dresses tied at one shoulder and simple tunics.

Then, they opted to use cotton and wool. There is evidence of weaving cotton from 4000 years earlier. Cotton is a native plant found in the coastal regions, and it was cultivated by the ancient people of the Andes.

Similarly, wool was also a fibre that had been used in this region for centuries. Wool normally came from the fur of native camelids such as llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos. There is evidence that people knew how to spin yarn from raw wool by 300 BC.

Fibres were spun into threads by hand, then they were either woven or knitted by hand. Ancient Andean textiles are not only accredited for the complexity in their weaving methods, use of colour and designs, but for developing without external influences from other continents. Textiles developed within South America, influenced solely by the different cultures within the continent. Textiles often featured intricate geometric and zoomorphic patterns.

This shows that the Andeans had knowledge and skill to produce quality textiles just like, if not better, than the rest of the world at the time.

How did Geography and Climate Influence Clothing?

The types of clothes the early Andeans wore depended on where they lived. The Andes is the longest continental mountain range on the planet. The Andean States (in this case, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru) have some of the most diverse geographical features. This area has everything from mountains, coastal deserts, beaches, islands, rainforests, lakes, wetlands, oceans and lowlands. These geographic features, along with the proximity to the equator plus the movement of various ocean currents result in a varied climate. From humid and tropical in the rainforests to arid, mild and hot in the lowlands and temperate to cold, in the highlands.

These factors combined, influenced the early indigenes of this region to dress accordingly.

For instance, pre-Inca people from coastal regions wore clothes made of cotton, while those near the mountains, more woollen clothes. Over time, trade within the region made both materials available by the time the Inca Empire was established in the early 15th century.

Traditionally, clothes were never tailored or cut into pieces. They’d make large textiles and wear them whole, fastening them with pins where needed. They were woven to the size of the wearer in the form of squares, rhombuses or rectangles. The fabric wouldn’t come off the loom until all the edges of the cloth were finished on the loom. Tailoring was introduced to the Andeans by the Spanish settlers, who started arriving in the Inca Empire in the 16th century.

The Nature of Clothing during the Inca Empire

Clothing worn during the Inca Empire had purposes other than keeping warm. It was regarded as a symbol of the wearer’s age, gender, marital status, political status, religion, ethnicity, wealth and position in society.

The Inca Empire was an advanced and vast empire based in Cusco (present-day Peru), that spanned through all three Andean states and further south to Chile. It was the largest empire in pre-colonial America.

Due to the importance and meaning that clothing held, the Inca rulers enforced rigid restrictions and rules for dressing. For example, only the royalty and nobility could wear clothes made of premium materials such as fine wool dyed with vibrant colours, using dyes from natural sources. Their clothes were also embellished with feathers, embroidery, ornaments and beads.

Such fabrics were known as cumbi and they were made of the finest alpaca wool available. Cumbi could only be woven by a selected group of people in designated weaving centres.

colourful royal inca tunic
Royal Inca tunic made of Cumbi. Image Credit: World History

Clothes for royalty used to be extremely colourful and used vibrant hues. These dyes were extracted from natural sources like indigo, which was used for blue and black, and insects such as cochineal to extract the red dye. One reason why royalty preferred colourful clothes was that the process took immense effort and time. As such, they were only associated with high social status and wealth.

Commoners, on the other hand, wore basic clothes. Men wore basic tunics, while women donned simple but long dresses made of cotton. Both pinned a piece of cloth on their hair and wore hats on their heads.

Importance of Clothing during the Incan Period

At death, Andean leaders and their family members would be shrouded in several layers of fabric before being buried, much like mummies. They believed that their clothes would be a necessity for them in the afterlife.

It is through their graves that we now know what kind of clothes the early Andeans used to wear. We can also see how it influences contemporary traditional fashion. Other information is obtained from painting on pottery left behind by them.

Cloth, regardless of who it was reserved for, was considered a prestigious item that was either exchanged or offered at the important coming of age rituals and religious ceremonies.

With such a rich history of textiles, the establishment of various civilizations and empires over millennia and colonization, dresses have evolved, with each era having its own traditional dress. This post will, therefore, look at some of the dresses that are considered to be traditional, at present. Today’s traditional clothes consist of dresses, skirts, trousers, blouses, tunics, ponchos, shawls and hats. Let’s explore some of them in detail.


There are numerous ethnic groups and sub-ethnic groups in Ecuador. And each has their way of dressing. Traditional clothes of these groups aren’t only linked to history but the climate too. The differences in their costumes are visible in different ecosystems. Take, for instance, the clothes of the Otavaleño people. The Otavaleños are a group of indigenous people native to the Andean mountains in northern Ecuador.

Otavaleño men traditionally wear white trousers that read their calves, a poncho, typically blue in colour and a fedora. A poncho is an outer garment made of one large piece of fabric, with a hole in the middle for the head to pass through.

Otavaleño men are also recognized by their Shimba, which are braids that sometimes even reach the waist. The tradition of wearing and maintaining a shimba goes back to pre-Incan times.  Shimba is an important part of Ecuadorian culture and it serves as a symbol of the indigenous identity. They are so significant that men joining the army are exempted from cutting it off.

otavaleño man in traditional clothing
Otavaleño man wearing a shimba and the traditional attire. Image Credit: Little Malteser on Tour

Otavaleño women also wear similar clothes. Their traditional clothes consist of a white blouse, a blue or black skirt and a shawl over their shoulders. The blouse may or may not have colourful embroidery work done. Finally, they accessorize themselves with culturally important jewellery made of gold beads, corals, etc. In all the Andes, the Otavaleño women’s dress happens to be most similar to the outfits worn during the Incan period.

otavaleño women wearing traditional clothes
Otavaleño women in traditional attire. Image Credit: Green Global Travel

The Otavaleño people’s dress also acts as a marker of Ecuadorian identity. There is no one specific Ecuadorian dress per se but, when someone asks what traditional dress in Ecuador is like, they are directed to the outfits of the Otavaleño men and women.

Clothing in Coastal Ecuador

Meanwhile, in coastal Ecuador, the Tsáchila group of indigenous people, for example, are recognized for wearing their traditional striped garments. The garments consist of a skirt with narrow white stripes. Men wear darker colours, such as black or blue, while women wear more colourful skirts. Generally, people near the coast tend to wear lighter clothes. Men, for instance, like to wear the Cuban guayaberas, while women wear lightweight dresses.

Tsáchila people in traditional clothing
Tsáchila people. Image Credit: Iwana Trip

In the present day, most people tend to simply wear the general western-style clothes that most of the world wear, due to modernization. Leaving, these traditional clothes for occasions like weddings, cultural events, performances and festivals. Occasionally, people mix and match, wearing some elements of their traditional dress with everyday clothes. The elderly and people in rural areas, on the other hand, incorporate traditional garments more into their daily attire.


Like in other South American countries, there is no singular Bolivian dress due to the ethnic diversity. Even among the indigenous cultures, there are several types of dress, depending on the different ecosystems in the country. However, the clothes of the cholas stand out as the icon of Bolivian identity. Cholitas and cholas are words used to describe the indigenous or mestizo Andean Bolivians.

In Bolivia, the distinctive traditional garments for women include the pollera, a blouse, a manta and a hat.

The pollera is a colourful pleated multi-layered skirt. All the layers ensure warmth in the higher altitudes of Bolivia, where the temperature is lower than it is in the lowlands. The history of this skirt goes back to the Spanish colonial era.

boilivian pollera skirt and attire
Bolivian pollera. Image Credit: Llilas Benson Magazine

History of the Pollera

With the arrival of the Spanish in South America, also came rules and restrictions regarding clothing, imposed by the Catholic Church. The church would decide what was or wasn’t appropriate to wear or do. As a result, the native people were no longer permitted to practice their cultures or wear their traditional clothes. Since they could no longer wear their own clothes, in the 16th century, the Spanish made the native and mixed-race people wear European-style dresses. These dresses, however, were slightly modified to suit the climate and lifestyle of the locals.

One of these clothes was the pollera, which was originally the dress of a Spanish peasant woman. It was particularly imposed to differentiate indigenous people from the European settlers. Indigenous people were disregarded and belittled, so a clear distinction between the two groups could allow the colonists to continue to look down upon them, without any mistake.

The Spanish imperialists forced indigenous women to wear polleras and rid themselves of their own traditional clothes, which previously consisted of a tunic and a belt around the waist.

Even though it was originally a sign of oppression, the native women transformed into a symbol of empowerment. Today, Bolivian women have embraced the garment and wear it with pride as it is a symbol of their native heritage and cultural identity.

The Chola Outfit

The length of the pollera varies from region to region. For instance, in the Bolivian capital, La Paz, the skirts are fuller and reach the ankles. Whereas in places such as Cochamba and Chuquisaca, polleras only extend to the knees. In Tarija, the skirts are even shorter. So, whenever their feet get cold, they use woollen leg warmers to keep themselves warm.

On top, they wear a blouse decorated with frills. However, as they aren’t warm enough against the Andean temperatures, many women wear sweaters made of alpaca wool underneath. Over this, goes a shawl or cape, locally known as a manta.

Completing the ensemble is a typical 19th-century bowler hat, which is basically a hat with a round top or crown. Unlike the classic bowler hat, however, these hats can come in bright and colourful hues.

Men’s traditional costume consists of light weighted trousers made of handwoven cotton fabric. On top, they wear colourful ponchos and, finally, cover their heads with a woollen hat called a chulla.

Many Bolivians still wear their traditional outfits as their daily attire, particularly in rural areas. Others wear it for tourists visiting their towns and cities.

traditional bolivian clothing
Man and woman in traditional Bolivian attire. Image Credit: Visit Bolivia


Peru is a multi-cultural country with a multi-ethnic population, much like the other Andean states. Here, cultures blend together, drawing elements from all groups of people to create a unique Peruvian society. Each region in the country has something different to offer while maintaining the Peruvian identity.

Like in Ecuador and Bolivia, clothing here also varies according to the terrain one finds themselves in. Though typical Peruvian clothing, belonging to all ethnic groups, features unique motifs and a myriad of bright colours that beautifully complement each other.

While there is no single costume that embodies all Peruvian cultures, the iconic clothes of the indigenous highlander Quechua people instantly come to mind when it comes to discussing traditional clothing.

Women’s Traditional Attire

There are many different components to women’s dress in Peru. The first is the lliclla, which is another word for manta. It refers to a piece of fabric that is pinned or tied at the front, near the chest, covering the shoulders and back, like a cape. Lliclla is a multi-purpose textile. It is also used to carry heavy goods and even children on their backs. Under the lliclla, women wear a jobona, which is essentially a woollen jacket with buttons. These jackets are extremely colourful and have intricate designs on them.

The lower half is covered by a pollera, similar to the Bolivian variety. Peruvian polleras are traditionally made of wool but other fabrics can also be used. What makes them uniquely Peruvian is a decorative strip called puyto on their pollera. The skirts are first purchased from the market, after which puyto is stitched onto them by hand. These skirts indicate where the woman is from and what her position is in society.

To fasten their skirts, women use a chumpi, which translates to ‘belt’, in the Quechua language. It can also be used to gently secure babies wrapped in their blankets.

The ensemble is completed with a traditional Quechua headdress known as a montera. One look at these hats can indicate what region the wearer is from. These hats may vary in size, shape, colours and decorations. Some hats are flat, while others are curved and inverted, some are decorated with flowers, while others are embroidered.

These hats traditionally have a decorated chin strap known as sanq’apa, that securely keeps the hat in place.

Quechua woman in full traditional attire
Quechua woman in full traditional attire. Image Credit: Harv Greenberg via Pinterest

Men’s Traditional Attire

For men, the poncho, a common garment seen throughout the Andean states, is an important part of Peruvian attire. The colours and motifs on the poncho indicate which part of Peru the wearer is from. It keeps the wearer warm in the high altitudes of Peru. Underneath, they wear warm sweaters, also woven with camelid or sheep wool.

For the bottom half, they wear knee-length handwoven trousers, which were and still are, in some cases, very practical for working in the fields. Traditionally, they were fastened with a chumpi or belt. These trousers usually come in black or other dark colours.

Lastly, they complete the attire with a chullo. It is a hat, also made of camelid or sheep’s wool. Its distinct features are its earflaps and a tassel on top. Like the poncho, the chullo can also be seen in various parts of the Andes. These hats have been used by Andeans for millennia.

These days, boys and men like to wear western-style clothes, particularly sportswear. However, they do end up wearing their cultural dress for festivals and special events. The elderly can be frequently seen wearing various items of their traditional clothes such as chullos, ponchos and handwoven trousers.

Peru men wearing traditional clothing
Quechua men. Notice the chullo hats. Image Credit: Interpress Service

It is safe to say that dresses in Peru, particularly those of the Quechua, have combined elements from the colonial period, as represented by the pollera skirt and trousers, along with elements from the Wari (500-1000 AD) and Inca (1438-1533) periods, like the poncho, lliclla and chullo.

Reasons why Cultural Clothing is Under Threat

Ecuadorian kids in western attire
Kids from Ecuador. Image Credit: MDG Fund

Throughout this post, we saw many people are replacing traditional clothes with western clothes such as t-shirts and jeans, as their daily attire. Cultural clothing is mostly seen being worn on special occasions, especially among the younger generation. On the contrary, we see that it is mostly the elderly and inhabitants in rural areas who continue to wear their traditional attire daily.

As young people move out from rural areas to larger cities within or outside the country, they adopt western clothes as that is what is ‘widely accepted’ and universal. Moreover, many regard traditional clothes as backward. Thus, they instantly assume that the person wearing them is less capable or simple-minded. Therefore, to portray themselves as competent in society, they wear ‘modern’ clothes. This phenomenon is threatening traditional clothing not only in South America but all over the world.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Lesser Antilles 

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