Gauchos and gauchas of Argentina

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Southern Cone

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 Southern Cone.

The Southern cone is one of the four sub-regions in South America. It refers to the group of countries located at the southernmost part of the continent of South America. It comprises Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Sometimes the southern parts of Brazil are also considered to be a part of the Southern cone. However, in this series, Brazil has been considered a part of the Eastern South American countries. Thus, it has been covered separately.

Click here to read about traditional clothing in Brazil. 

About the Southern Cone

southern cone on a map
The southern cone indicated on a map. Image Credit: Concept Draw

Traditional clothing in any part of the world is a reflection of its geography, climate, history, and culture. Therefore, we must familiarize ourselves with this region, to better understand the nature of traditional clothing found in the Southern Cone.

All countries, except Paraguay, are located below the equator. This means seasons are experienced in reverse in those countries. Summer falls in January, while winters are in June. The climate is subtropical to temperate. However, this may vary depending on different locations and geographic features.

Climate and Topography

Uruguay is located between Argentina and Brazil, on the eastern coast of the South American continent. The majority of the country lies in the La Pampas region, which is low grass-covered plains with fertile soil. Uruguay experiences hot and humid summers and in winter temperatures are mild, but there is more rainfall. These grasslands also cover the eastern parts of Argentina.

However, in Argentina, the climate is not that straightforward. The country has a diverse topography consisting of deserts, tundra, forests, plains, rivers, oceans, and mountains. The grasslands and the capital experience a temperate climate with hot and humid summers and cool and dry winters. But, at higher altitudes, like in the Andes and Patagonia, summers are cool and winters are extremely cold, reaching below freezing temperatures. The southern part of Argentina is generally cooler than the north due to the cold winds blowing from Antarctica.

The Andes and Patagonia are also a part of Chile. So, the same climate applies to these parts of the country. Southern Chile also experiences cold blows from the south. Otherwise, summers are usually hot and humid and winters are mild but wet. Chile, too, has contrasting geographical features, including oceans, volcanoes, mountains, deserts, glaciers, lakes, and forests.

Paraguay is made up of grasslands, marshy plains, hills, plateaus, dry forests, and rivers. In summers, Paraguay experiences a rainy season and is overall warm. Winters, on the other hand, are mild and dry.

Culture in the Southern Cone

The four countries in question today have a long history rooted in colonization. Ever since they were discovered by Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, the Spanish began settling down in these lands and subsequently colonized this region.

At the time of Spanish arrival, the southern cone was inhabited by several independent indigenous groups. They were either semi-nomadic people or hunter-gatherers or a combination of the two. At the time, there were no unified or vast civilizations or empires that existed. Though the Incan empire in the Andean region had expanded to the northern part of Chile.

For nearly 300 years, the Spanish remained in power until the 19th century, which is by when each nation had gained independence from them. In those 300 years, the Spanish brought along their culture, religion, way of life, social constructs, with them. Their arrival resulted in a decline of many indigenous cultures, either due to disease or cultural assimilation. Though many have struggled hard to survive to this day.

As a result of colonization, a very unique creole culture developed, one that is influenced by indigenous and Spanish cultures, along with the cultures of the many immigrants from around the world that made this region their home. An example of a culture like this is the Gaucho or cowboy culture. A culture that inspired many of the traditional dresses in these countries.

What is the Gaucho Culture?

southern american gauchos
Gauchos riding a horse. Image Credit: Knowmad Adventures

In the 16th century, when the Spanish were in the process of founding and settling down in different cities, they brought their horses and cattle along with them. This is how horses were first introduced to South America. From there, nomadic men would encounter these animals and those who could tame and domesticate them became the first gauchos.

By the 19th century, gauchos had become semi-nomadic horsemen living simple agrarian lives. The majority of the gauchos were mestizos, meaning people of mixed race, typically of European and Indigenous heritage. They would mostly inhabit and work in the grasslands in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, southern Brazil and parts of Bolivia. As the largest grasslands of La Pampa can be found in Argentina and Uruguay, the gaucho culture is most prominent in these places.

The gaucho lifestyle resulted in a very typical outfit, for both men and women, which is considered the traditional dress in the majority of the southern cone countries. The gaucho outfit will be discussed in detail later on in this post.

Gaucho Culture Today

The gaucho culture came to a decline at the end of the 19th century when private businesses began acquiring land and livestock that the gauchos once depended on. The industrial revolution sped the process up too, as more efficient methods of tending livestock were developed. Soon, people began regarding gauchos as uncivilized people and, with little space left for themselves, many migrated to the cities. Others found employment within the new estates established by the businesses to continue their way of life. It is through them that the culture has managed to survive. Fortunately, more efforts are being made by governments to preserve this culture in the present day.

Without further ado, let us now look at a few of the dresses from a few of these countries, and explore how they represent the unique Creole cultures in the Southern Cone, and how they reflect the region’s geography.

Argentina and Uruguay 

In Argentina and Uruguay, the gaucho outfit is considered the unofficial national dress of Argentina.

Gauchos wear a pair of cotton trousers called bombacha. These are accordion-pleated balloon-shaped pants that are fitted at the ankles. Being loose fitted at the upper portion of the legs, they are ideal for horseback riding. Traditionally, they are available in khaki, beige, black and white colours. However, these days, they may be available in other, brighter colours as well.

Uruguay Gauchos wearing traditional attire
Gauchos. Image Credit: Blendspace

Also at the ankles is a strip of fabric which covers the top of their shoes. On top of that, they wear a tailored cotton shirt, which is tucked into the trousers. Sometimes, they even wear a vest jacket over the shirt. At their waist, they wear a wide leather belt that is decorated with metallic embellishments and metallic coins. These decorations often have motifs with the initials of the farmer and basically indicate their brand. In Uruguay, gauchos will wear a fabric belt with colours and patterns called faja on their waist, over the bombacha. Tucked into their belts is a facon, which is a 14-inch knife carried for self-defence.

14 inch knite tucked into the belt
Faja and facon. Image Credit: El Nacionalista

Around the neck, they also tie a handkerchief, which they knot at the front. On their heads, they may wear a Basque beret or a wide-brimmed hat that may or may not have chin straps.

In winter, gauchos wear bright coloured ponchos. Ponchos are an outer garment, originally from Andean South America. It is made of a single piece of large rectangular fabric that is slit at the centre to make an opening for the neck. It is made of wool, so it keeps them warm and comfortable during their travels. The ponchos can be doubled as pillows, sleeping bags, saddle pads and even blankets.

gaucho wearing a poncho
Gaucho wearing a poncho. Image Credit: Camino Pampa

Women’s Outfit

voluminous gaucha dress
Countrywoman’s full dress. Image Credit: Dare 2 Go

Cowgirls or countrywomen, who were the partners of the gauchos have many names, but they are most commonly known as paisana. They would also wear the gaucho outfit. Or they’d wear a floral skirt with a blouse or, a full dress, many a time with a shawl worn around the shoulders like a cape. They would also wear their hair in two braids. Women’s clothing features a lot of floral patterns. The national flower, ceibo, is frequently used as decoration.


alpargata canvas and rope shoes
Alpargatas. Image Credit: Vamos Spanish

Both men and women wear alpargatas on their feet. This is an interesting piece of footwear that has origins in Ancient Egypt. Alpargatas is Spanish for the French word, espadrilles. An espadrille is a type of slip-on shoe whose soles are made from natural fibres like jute or hemp, materials used to make rope. And the uppers are made from canvas.

Alpargatas are an evolved form of primitive sandals that were once found in ancient Egypt. From there it journeyed its way to ancient Rome, which then spread across the Mediterranean. The design that we are familiar with today was developed in the Basque region of France and Spain. It was brought over to South America by Basque settlers in Argentina, who migrated to the country in the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries.

With them, the shoes were introduced to South America, gaining a lot of popularity. They were particularly popular with the rural folks and peasants, as they were cheap, yet comfortable and durable. Before alpargatas, gauchos wore botas de potro, which were ill-fitted leather stockings tied with rope. By the mid-1800s, the alpargatas had replaced the botas de potro and became the common shoe. With the advent of the industrial revolution, shoes could be mass-produced and undergo developments that would strengthen them. Today, the sides of the sole have a rubber lining for added durability, and they come in many colours.

ill fitted leather shoes botas de potro
Botas de Potro. Image Credit: El Agrario

Gauchos may also wear high knee leather boots while riding their horses. In that case, the bombachas are tucked inside the boots before being zipped up. The height of the boots helps secure them in place, prevents the leg from getting injured in thick bushes with thorns, rocks, insects, and snakes. Plus, it prevents mud and water from easily entering the shoe in the rain.

Importance of the Gauchos

In Argentina, these horsemen and farmers are more than just inhabitants of the grasslands. They are a national symbol, thus undoubtedly a big part of Argentine culture. This is because they played a key role in the war of independence. The Spanish and the Argentine patriotic forces would battle in rural areas. These semi-nomadic people who inhabited those areas had important knowledge about using the land to their advantage, which they shared with the patriotic forces. This support shown to the Argentine military would make them a proud symbol of the country.

As for Uruguay, its economy is highly dependent on meat exports, and the country has always been livestock oriented. The gauchos and their outfits reflect their dependence on the livestock and animal husbandry industry. Besides, the gaucho or paisana clothing is the only dress that is distinct to Uruguay.

The gaucho outfit is not only donned by rural folk, who still maintain the gaucho culture, but also by other people throughout both countries. However, they mostly wear it at festivals, carnivals, and special occasions such as weddings. Only they wear a flower on their chests at these special events.


In Chile, traditional dress is hardly ever worn. It is only during the Fiesta Patrias or Independence Day celebrations, or while performing cueca, the Chilean national dance. They can also be worn at rodeos.

Traditional clothing of men and women are the huaso clothes. Similar to the gauchos in Uruguay and Argentina, there are cowboys and cowgirls who were cattle herders and farmers originally from southern and central Chile. Men are known as huasos, while women are called huasas.

Huasos wear a pair of dark loose fitted trousers, over which they wear a full-sleeved short-length jacket. Like bombachas, these trousers are also designed to easily ride a horse.

southern chilean huaso dress
Huaso clothing. Image Credit: Ecochile

On top of the jacket, they wear the distinctly Chilean poncho known as a chamanto. A chamanto is a reversible poncho. Both sides of the garment can be worn. One side is dark while the other is lighter. The dark side is worn during the day and the light side is worn at night. Chamantos are decorated with traditional patterns, fringes and ribbons. They also tie a sash at their waist. On their feet, they wear knee-high leather boots, and on their heads, they wear a wide-brimmed felt hat called chupulla.

Women wear the huasa dress, otherwise known as vestido de huasa. This is a beautiful dress mainly worn for dancing cueca. The dress has a bodice with ruffled sleeves and a knee-length skirt that is voluminous and multilayered. The dress is cinched at the waist with a sash to highlight the figure of the body. The huasa dress is adorned with floral patterns and it is available in many vibrant colours. The skirt of the dress resembles a shorter pollera, a skirt of Spanish origin worn across Latin America.

Mapuche Dress

Indigenous chilean women
Mapuche women. Image Credit: Yale University Art Gallery

The Mapuche people are the largest indigenous group in Chile, making up 12% of Chile’s total population. They traditionally inhabit the southern parts of the country, where their ancestral lands are.

The Mapuche people are especially well known for their weaving traditions and textiles. They are famous for weaving using llama and guanaco wool using a traditional loom to weave ponchos, blankets and bags. Nowadays, they also use sheep wool for weaving. In Mapuche culture, women are responsible for weaving and spinning yarn. These skills were then passed on over generations, from mother to daughter. One way to identify Mapuche textiles is through the motifs woven in their fabric. A typical motif is the guemil, a design forming a quadrangle pattern.

Poncho with guemil patterns
Poncho with guemil patterns. Image Credit: David E. Adler

Mapuche women traditionally wrap their bodies with a chamal, a large piece of black cloth tied at the shoulder. At the waist, they would fasten a wide decorative fabric belt known as a tariwe. On their shoulders, they would wear a poncho called a rebozo. It is worn around their shoulder like a cape, which is fastened at the chest with a tupu, a type of brooch. The rebozo hangs all the way to the ankles.

Mapuche women are also famous for their silverwork and silver jewellery. They accessorize their outfit with traditional jewellery such as a head ornament known as a trarilongko, and silver earrings called chaguay, among others.

mapuche silverwork
Mapuche silverwork. Image Credit: Ethnic Adornment

Mapuche men wear a tailored shirt, chiripa and a makun. The chiripa is a black coloured rectangular piece of sheep wool fabric that is wrapped around the waist and passed between the legs, covering the thighs and genitals. A makun is a black blanket that can serve the function of a poncho.

chiripa wrapped around the legs
Chiripa. Image Credit: Tukutun Chiripa

How does clothing represent the region?

Gauchos and gauchas of Argentina
Image Credit:

Through this post, we saw how traditional clothing mirrors the geographical conditions of their respective countries. For instance, many of the clothes incorporate wide-brimmed hats suggesting the strength of the sun’s rays in the southern cone. Additionally, we saw the use of ponchos, a warm outer garment made of wool.

We also saw how creole cultures, like the gaucho culture, perfectly embodies the mixed culture that resulted from colonization. Gauchos highlights the dependence on the land, it reflects the indigenous people’s nomadic roots, and horses and cattle- the livestock introduced by the Spanish, act as a symbol and reminder of colonial history.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Guianas and Brazil. 

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