One of the most striking images in La Paz is that of the ubiquitous cholas paceñas, the Aymara and mestiza women dressed in voluminous skirts and bowler hats, who dominate much of the day-to-day business in the city’s endless markets. The word chola (cholo for men) was originally a derogatory term used to refer to indigenous women who moved to the city and adopted the lifestyle of urban mestizos, but now refers more to women who were born in La Paz (paceñas) and are proud of their urban indigenous identity.
The distinctive dress of the chola is derived from seventeenth-century Spanish costumes, which indigenous women were obliged to copy under colonial rule. The crucial element of the outfit is the pollera, a layered skirt made from lengths of material up to 5m long, which are wrapped around the waist and reinforced with numerous petticoats to emphasize the width of the wearer’s hips. These skirts can make women appear almost as wide as they are tall, and represent a glorious celebration of a very distinct ideal of female beauty. The pollera is worn in combination with knee-high boots, an elaborate lacy blouse, a shawl wrapped around the shoulders and a felt bowler or derby hat. The bowler hats became common attire in the 1930s, though the origins of this fashion are somewhat mysterious. Some say the style was adopted from the hats worn by gringo mining and railway engineers, others that the trend was started by a businessman who erroneously imported a job lot of bowler hats from Europe and struck on the idea of marketing them as women’s headgear.
The chola costume was originally confined to the wealthier mestiza women of La Paz, but has since become widespread amongst Aymara migrants in the city and across the Altiplano. The acceptability of the chola as one of the central icons of La Paz and an expression of pride in indigenous culture was confirmed in 1989, when Remedios Loza became the first woman to take a seat in the Bolivian Congress dressed in full chola regalia. In the decades since, not least since Evo Morales came to power in 2005, the colourfully attired chola has become almost as familiar a political fixture as the traditional drab-suited gent.