International politics, especially as of late, would paint Bolivia as a rogue leftist nation continually butting heads with American economic imperialism. And on one level, perhaps that is correct. But such things are the playing fields of politicians and policy makers. On the ground, with the people in the cities and towns, one gets a very different impression. Bolivians are a proud and beautiful people whose traditional cultures have survived while in many other places around the world such history has either withered into obscurity or become unrecognizably commodified. Bolivia is considered one of the most traditional countries in Latin America. That is more than evident in the brightly colored, Quechua-filled marketplaces.
Many women of Bolivia still dress in the iconic cholita style (although these styles differ greatly in detail and name in different parts of the country). This style includes knee-length or longer plain skirts, often worn in multiple layers to combat the cold mountain winds, as well as 19th-century English bowler hats. This specific “style” is not traditional in the sense of being indigenous in origin; instead, it was the mode of dress imposed on many Bolivians by the British, who unofficially filled the power vacuum left by the defeated Spanish colonial rulers following independence. Still, it is ironic that the world’s largest market for industrial-era European headwear exists today in the most isolated and culturally diverse country of Latin America.
My favorite aspect of cholita style is the hair-braiding. I am not sure whether this is British in origin as well, or whether perhaps this aspect reaches deeper into Bolivian history. Regardless, it is gorgeous. Bolivian women traditionally grow out their silky black hair for almost their whole lives. It is fashioned into two elegant, long braids—one on each side—that often stretch below their waist.
As with many fashions, there are communicative subtleties woven into the tradition that are not decipherable to outsiders. The length of the braids is a mark of experience and age, for example, and the exact angle and jaunt of the bowler hats indicates marital status, among other things. —Mario Machado