wayuu women in traditional clothing

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Colombia and Venezuela

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 in Caribbean South America.

As we discussed last week, South America is typically divided into 4 regions; they are, the Andean States, Caribbean South America, the Guianas and the Southern Cone. Last week we explored cultural clothing in the Andean States. This week we’ll be looking at clothing from the Caribbean and South America.

Caribbean South America refers to those countries on the South American continent that border the Caribbean Sea. This region generally refers to the countries Colombia and Venezuela as the northern parts of these countries are bordered by the Caribbean Sea.

Sometimes, countries and territories such as Guyana and French Guiana are also considered part of this region, but they’re also categorized into another sub-region known as the Guianas. For the sake of this post, we shall only consider the two other countries.

Factors Influencing Traditional Clothing in the Caribbean South America

Traditional clothing expresses the cultural identity of a group of people. The nature of traditional clothing is closely related to the place that a group of people belong to and their culture there. Thus, factors such as climate, geography, history, social structure, politics, economy, trade, age and occasion influence the characteristics of cultural clothing.

Clothing, particularly, traditional clothing in Caribbean South America, is largely influenced by its geography, which is particularly diverse in this region. The Caribbean Sea isn’t the only prominent geographical feature here.

Geography influences the resources available to determine the lifestyle of the local people. Meaning, geography directly shapes cultures. The lifestyle, terrain and climate ultimately decide the reasons for which clothes are required, what the clothes will be made of, and how they’ll be designed. Social structures, beliefs and values will determine the type of clothes that people of different social ranks are expected to wear. This region also borders the North Pacific Ocean to the west and the North Atlantic Ocean to the east. It is also located a few degrees above the equator, meaning it maintains a warm and tropical climate, experiencing average temperatures ranging from 24 to 28 degrees Celsius throughout the year.

map of colombia and venezuela

Caribbean South America – Colombia and Venezuela. Image Credit:Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, parts of the Andes Mountains pass through this region, with its north-easternmost point being located in Venezuela. This once again affects the climate, as the temperatures are slightly cooler at higher altitudes. This region even has parts of the Amazon Basin passing through it, covered with thick green forests. Lastly, other parts of this region are covered in grasslands, plateaus, deserts, lakes, rivers and more.

Historical Factors

Geographical factors along with events in history, beginning with the settlement of the indigenous groups, followed by colonization, migration, and slavery, have been reflected in the traditional dress of this region. Christopher Columbus landed on the shores of present-day Venezuela in 1498 during his third voyage to the Americas, while his companion, Alonso de Ojeda, discovered the territory that is now Colombia, just a year later. Soon after their discovery, the process of colonization began in this area. Before their arrival, the lands were inhabited by the indigenous populations. In Colombia, it was largely inhabited by the Muisca, Quimbaya and Tairona people, while Venezuela was mostly inhabited by the Arawaks and Caribs or their descendants, like the Mariches.

Clothing of the Pre-Colonial Indigenous People

Detailed knowledge about the clothing of the ancient indigenous people is limited. However, many of the groups were known to wear breechcloths around their waists, covering the front and backside. They would also adorn their bodies with body paint and jewellery made of shells, stone and gold, among other materials. The Taironas were one of the cultures that were experts at working with gold. Taironas were known to wear clothes made of cotton and feathers.

The commoners likely wore belted breechcloths while the elite wore elaborate dresses and masks in the shape of animals. This is because the tribes of the Chibcha family believed in the concept of transformation, so they would make efforts to transform themselves into the most powerful creatures. They considered the bat to be the most powerful, so it featured in many Tairona jewellery and ornaments. To the Tairona, ornaments with jewellery containing symbols of powerful creatures were regarded as a status symbol and represented their powers as well.

Muisca Textiles

Other cultures developed their weaving methods and produced textiles with unique patterns with cultural significance. The Muiscas, for instance, were known for their textiles. They were highly skilled at weaving materials like cotton and fique, a type of plant fibre. They’d even blend some human hair into the plant fibres to produce fibres of desired characteristics. Their fabrics were large and multi-coloured, where dyes were extracted from sources like avocado seeds, saffron, flowers, indigo, fruits and clays.

muisca man in jewellery and clothes
Illustration of a Muisca man. Image Credit: Coricancha via Deviantart

Common garments were a tunic made of cotton and ruanas, a type of blanket that they used to tie at the shoulder, made of wool or thicker cotton. Feathered headdresses were also part of attire on special occasions. The most colourful feathers were traded with more tropical parts of the continent. The Muisca too were skilled gold workers and produced various types of artefacts and jewellery made of the substance. Many of the indigenous cultures had access to gold and had mastered the art of working with gold. It was ultimately the greed for gold and land that attracted the Spanish to come and conquer these lands.

The arrival of the Spanish

With the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous population declined, mostly due to diseases brought by the Europeans that the natives weren’t immune to. Much of the remaining population were enslaved and were forcefully made to work in such harsh conditions that it proved fatal many a time. They would make them work in mines to extract valuable resources, like gold. The indigenous populations were at a serious decline and the Spanish needed to get their work done, so they began transporting slaves from western Africa through the transatlantic slave trade. Fast forward to after independence and during the time of World War II, many Europeans, particularly from eastern and southern Europe, and Asians also migrated to this region, once the war was over.

These events in history have resulted in a multi-cultural society where people of all ethnicities are more or less tolerant of each other. Since these events have influenced the social make-up and culture of the countries, they naturally have also had their influences represented in traditional dress.

Let us finally look at some of these dresses from various regions in both Colombia and Venezuela, and see what role the aforementioned factors play in them.

Venezuela

Venezuela can be divided into eight natural regions. They are the Andean Region, the Venezuelan Coastal Range, the Guayana Region, the Insular Region, the Llanos region, the Lake Maracaibo Basin region, the Orinoco Delta Region and the Lara Flacon Highlands. Each region possesses various geographic that affect the way people dress there. These dresses can further within different communities as well.

men wearing liqui liqui with llanero
Liqui liqui. Image Credit: World Kings

Nonetheless, the country does have a national costume, which is worn all around the country.  The national dress of Venezuela is the men’s dress, which is called liqui liqui.  The outfit comprises a waist-length jacket with long sleeves and a Nehru collar. It has five to six buttons at the front and two to four pockets. The jacket is worn with a pair of trousers made of the same fabric and colour as the jacket. The outfit is made of either cotton, linen, gabardine or even wool. There is a material available for all climatic conditions. They usually come in sober colours, such as white, black or shades of brown.

The ensemble is complete with a hat known as the llanero, which refers to the herders working in the grasslands of Venezuela – the Llanos. The llanero was originally the hat of these herders. It closely resembles the typical cowboy hat. Lastly, traditional shoes worn with liqui liqui are alpargatas, which are traditional South American open-toe sandals. The fabric used for the shoe is usually made of cotton or canvas and the sole is made from a type of jute rope. This makes them very flexible, comfortable and durable.

Origins, Variations and Function

The exact origins of the liqui liqui are unknown, though it is known to have been developed in the Llanos region. Judging by the collar, many believe that it may have come to Venezuela from the Philippines. Alternatively, based on its shape, others speculate that it may have developed from the military uniforms worn during the colonial period.

The traditional liqui liqui is made for men. However, there is a version of the dress created for women as well. The only difference between the men’s and women’s outfits is that women wear a type of formal skirt of differing lengths.

The liqui liqui is intended to be worn on formal occasions. It is common to see politicians and business people wearing this dress at conferences and other formal events. They may even be worn at occasions like weddings. The dress is also worn by dancers, musicians and singers during their performances.

Clothing in Caracas

lady antañona at a beauty pageant
Lady antañona dress. Image Credit: Pinterest

Women’s dresses find more variations across regions. In Caracas, the capital, the dress of ‘lady antañona’, is a traditional outfit featuring a wide floor-length skirt made of silk and decorated with lace. Underneath, a stiff petticoat or crinoline supports the overskirt, making it look full and wide. The head is covered with a fancy hat or decorated with beautiful flowers, and the hands are covered with gloves. They then carry an umbrella or fan for protection against the sun and heat. Just the way that aristocratic ladies from 19th century Europe wore. High society European ladies who had settled in Venezuela would follow these trends and wear these dresses.

Today, the lady antañonadress is very rarely worn. It is reserved for very special occasions, such as festivals and beauty pageant contests.

Men here wear trousers, a shirt and a suit jacket made of cotton. They also preferred lighter colours such as white, cream or beige. Sometimes, they wear bowties or ties to enhance their sophisticated look. Completing the outfit is a straw hat and occasionally even a cane. This serves as a reminder of how the early European settlers of high society used to dress.

Traditional Clothing on the Caribbean Coast

Towards the Caribbean coast, like in the state of Miranda, women wear dresses with wide knee-length skirts that have floral patterns. On top of which, sits a ruffled blouse, resting off the shoulders. The blouse is usually made of a light material like cotton. Lastly, they cover their heads with colourful headscarves. A practice that has remained from the days of slavery. Black women would initially cover their heads with a cloth as they laboured outdoors, to protect themselves from the sun’s rays. But later, as more and more slaves were emancipated, a law was passed in 1786 that mandated black women to cover their heads. Read more about this law here.

women in frilled dress and headwraps
Image Credit: Global Exchange

Cultural clothing found on the Caribbean coast shares similarities with clothing found in the Caribbean region. Even the style of the women’s outfit is similar to those found in Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Men, on the other hand, simply wear rolled-up khaki-coloured trousers and a matching jacket.

Clothing off the Venezuelan Mainland

The Venezuelan islands that are off the coast of Venezuela, located in the Caribbean Sea in the Leeward Antilles region, have their way of dressing too. Women wear a dress that has a wide floor-length skirt with frills. Around seven pieces of colourful cotton are stitched on and decorated with ribbons and lace, forming layers. The top is a high neck blouse with ¾ sleeves. Also, decorating the blouse is ribbons. This whole outfit is made of cotton to suit the warm weather.

Men wear white knee-length trousers, a collarless white shirt or a shirt of a brighter colour, like red.  They also wear a straw hat and alpargatas on their feet.

Clothing in the Andean Region

In the Andean region, the temperatures are relatively cooler than in the lowlands. As such, women wear darker colours, like black. They wear long skirts, with petticoats made of thicker material. They wear a longsleeved white blouse over which goes a light jacket, made of linen or cotton. Covering the head is first a scarf, then a hat. If they’re working outdoors, they wear the hat first and then place the scarf over it.

ruana a poncho like garment
Woolen ruana. Image Credit: Niquitao Tourism

The traditional costume for men in the Andean region is an outfit consisting of a pair of trousers and a jacket, like the liqui liqui. Only on top, they wear a ruana, which is a poncho-like garment, made of sheep wool to keep warm. Like women, they also wear a hat to protect themselves from the sun. Another unique feature is that they wear a belt with a pouch to store valuables and a sheath to carry a traditional machete. They also carry a cloth bag that hangs from one shoulder. The machete cuts coca leaves and the bag stores them. Coca leaves grow in abundance at lower altitudes of the Andes. It is a plant that has been in use since the pre-colonial period. Chewing these leaves suppresses hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue.

Colombia

Similar to Venezuela, clothing in Colombia depends on the conditions and culture of every region and the people living there. However, unlike Venezuela, there is no national dress per se. Instead, there are several iconic dresses from various regions. Let’s look at some of them.

huila dress for dancing
Sanjuenero Huila dress. Image Credit: Pinterest

The dress that is most associated with Colombia is the dress from Huila, worn while dancing Sanjuanero. Women wear an off-shoulder white cotton blouse heavily decorated with frills, lace and sequins. At the bottom, there is a wide ankle-length skirt made of satin. This skirt is captivating because of its striking colours and floral patterns. Additionally, the borders are further decorated with frills and lace. Women decorate their hair with flowers to complete the ensemble.

Men, on the other hand, wear matching white shirts and trousers, they tie a red scarf on their neck, wear a belt made of leather and finally, a straw hat on their head.

The dance is performed at annual folk festivals, which is where people can be seen wearing this attire.

Orinoquía region

The Orinoquia region is a grassland where people dress according to their profession. Many find their livelihood by cattle ranching. Hence, their outfits are designed in a way that is most suited to doing their tasks, like, for example, horse riding.

Women wear a skirt that extends to the knees, on top of which they wear a red and white floral blouse with ¾ sleeves. The blouse is decorated with red and white ribbons. Their hair is also decorated with ribbons and a selection of flowers.

Men wear white trousers and a contrasting shirt in colours red or black. Alternatively, they reverse the colours, wearing dark trousers and a white shirt on top. Lastly, they wear a heavy hat that stays in place while horse riding.

Clothing in the Caribbean and the Pacific Region in Colombia 

The coastal regions are quite warm and humid, so traditional clothes are designed accordingly. Men in some parts of this region wear colourful shirts and trousers made of linen, while others wear matching white shirts and white trousers made of cotton.

Women wear lighter skirts and tops made of the same materials. What is special about this region is that it is the birthplace of the vueltiao hat, otherwise known as the sombrero vueltiao. It is a wide-brimmed hat patterned with black and white stripes. These hats are woven by hand using dried cane leaves. They’re so iconic and they were declared a cultural symbol of Colombia in 2004.

Sombrero vueltiao broad brimmed hat
Sombrero vueltiao. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Towards the Pacific, the population of black communities is larger. While the design of the women’s dress is similar to the other two regions discussed earlier, their clothes are a lot more colourful and soft as they’re typically made of cotton. The colours are brighter and contain more patterns. An addition to their outfit is the use of headwraps.

Men wear loose-fitted clothing, consisting of colourful shirts and a pair of trousers in solid colour.

Clothing of the Wayuu People

Presently, indigenous people only represent 2-3% of the total population of Colombia, with 102 known indigenous groups. The largest percentage of which comprises the Wayuu people, followed by the Zenú and Nasa people.

In Venezuela as well, the indigenous people only form 2.8% of the total population, with 26 identified groups. Out of these, the largest population is also that of the Wayuu people, like in Colombia, the Warao people and the Pemon people.

Since the Wayuu make up a significant portion of the indigenous population, let’s see what their traditional dress is like.

Who are the Wayuu people?

The Wayuu people are a group of indigenous people who live in the Guajira Peninsula, a desert area at the northernmost point of Caribbean South America. This region is split between both Colombia and Venezuela, where they used to roam around freely across both borders as they are granted dual nationality. In the past few years, however, they have been facing issues with continuing their seasonal migration due to Venezuela’s efforts to tighten border security at the border of Colombia to prevent the smuggling of illegal substances.

The Wayuu are a fierce group of people as they never submitted to the Spanish conquistadors, they continue to resist both governments as they discriminate against them, and continue to face hardships as the lands they inhabit are practically abandoned. They lack access to the basic public and economic resources like education, medical facilities, communication facilities, job opportunities, etc. As such, most live in extreme poverty. They survive by depending on their handicrafts, which they are famous for. The Wayuu people are particularly known for their expertise in weaving. Weaving is more than a source of income for them. It is important ancestral knowledge and it is a way for them to express their perception of reality.

Wayuu Weaving Traditions

wayuu woman weaving
Image Credit: Wayuu Tribe

The Wayuu are a matriarchal society and, traditionally, it is the women who are gifted with the art of weaving. According to Wayuu legend, women learnt how to weave from a spider named Walekeru.

To them, weaving is also a symbol of womanhood. When girls first start their menstrual cycle, they must stay with the elders, away from their family, to learn the culture, traditions and social responsibilities of the Wayuu people. This is when weaving is also taught to them, passing knowledge from one generation to the next. They learn to weave detailed motifs that hold cultural significance. These patterns represent the elements that make up their matriarchy.

Wayuu Clothing

clothes of the wayuu men and women
Wayuu clothing. Image Credit: Radio Nacional de Colombia

Wayuu women usually wear loose ankle-length dresses with short sleeves. These robes are made of cotton and have vibrant colours and patterns. On special occasions and performances, such as the courtship dance. They cover their heads with cotton fabric and wear a shawl on top of the loose dress. They also cross over the mochila bags that they crocheted on their body. Mochila bags are small circular bags with drawstrings and a sling that is hand crocheted using woollen or acrylic yarn. The motifs on these bags are used as a way to communicate their view of the universe.

Finally, they wear sandals with woollen tassels on their feet.

Men traditionally wear loincloths made of the same colourful cotton fabric. They only cover the bottom half of their bodies, leaving the chest bare.

The Wayuu people have managed to preserve their traditions, customs and culture for years and strive to keep them alive.

A Quick Recap

woman wearing a frilled dress
Image Credit: Nick Verreos

As we explored some of the traditional garments from a few regions in Colombia and Venezuela, we found a lot of similarities between the two.  Frilled skirts and blouses, or dresses with frills were most common. For men, we saw that the traditional clothing consisted fundamentally of shirts and trousers. We saw how different cultures influenced clothing, like the headwraps that go back to the dark days of the enslavement of African men and women. Indigenous influences are visible in the form of motifs and colour schemes. And of course, the Spanish influence is most visible. These were western-style clothes introduced by the Spanish settlers in Caribbean South America. Decorative features, like the frills, are also contributed by Spanish influences. Many compare these frills to those in the Spanish Flamenco dress.

Lastly, we saw that the clothes were largely made using lighter materials to suit the climate. They were also designed in ways that were most functional for their purposes. Like in the case of the Andean clothes, they were made of heavier materials designed in a way that would allow people to work comfortably at higher altitudes. Thus, the factors discussed at the beginning of this post indeed correspond with the traditional dresses found in Caribbean South America.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in Andean South America

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