The traditional dress for women in Panama is the “Pollera”. This is a richly decorated dress with needlework in many designs, styles and colors. The woman wearing the pollera is further ornamented with gold and pearl jewelry. Naturally this is not every day wear but one used for special occasions.
As with other national dresses in Latin America, the pollera has its origin in Spain of the 16th and 17th centuries. However, as in other parts of Latin America, in Panama it evolved into what it is today. A study as to where in Spain it originated has failed to reveal any particular location in the old country. The important fact is that its uniqueness developed in Panama and compares to no other national dress in the Americas.
How did the pollera come to be the dress it is today? The provinces of Los Santos and Herrera jealously guard the pollera tradition, but this has not prevented the model to be adopted by all regions of the Republic. Yet, anyone who wants an “original pollera” will not wear one which is not made by the seamstresses of the two central provinces. One can appreciate the pride of a woman dressed in a pollera made in one of the two provinces and her knowledge that the outfit follows all aspects of tradition and workmanship.
While no one can say for sure when the Pollera became the traditional dress of Panama, there is evidence that as early as 1846 the term was already being used. Armand Recluse, a French Naval Officer exploring the isthmus, and Darien in particular, in 1876 through 1878, mentions the “poyera” as being the dress the women of color were wearing during the Independence Day (from Spain) in 1876. He described it in the following manner, “The colored ladies wear the poyera, a skirt gathered tightly at the waist and flaring greatly at the bottom.” Later, reviewing his experiences in the Darien, he added, “the women wear the old dress of the criollas, that is, a white petticoat made of lightweight cotton, adorned with one or more ruffles on which are stamped brightly colored floral designs. Over the short sleeved blouse are three ruffles similar in appearance but so low that the upper chest and back are left practically nude.” The hair style worn with the pollera is very important. Three variations are customarily seen: one using a typical hat; one using combs; and one using tembleques, combs and other jewelry. In all three cases, the hair is parted down the middle, combed to each side and braided.
As to the pollera itself, there are two types: The “Pollera Montuna” has a white cotton blouse with or without needlework and a long skirt made of flowered percale chintz. The woman wearing this outfit will usually wear a “montuno” hat from Ocu or La Pintada. The “Pollera de Gala”, is the fancy one with very full skirt, beautiful handmade embroidery and
colorful designs on a white background. The head adornments vary according to the wealth of the person and include fancy combs with gold and pearls and gold tembleques along with gold bracelets, earrings and necklaces.
To fully appreciate the beauty of the Panamanian typical dress it is necessary to see carnival in Las Tablas when the streets of that city are full with attractive women dressed in their “Polleras” and “Montunas".
- Luis R. Celerier