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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pollera: National Costume of Panama

Panama, affectionately known as el puente del mundo, corazón del universe (bridge of the world, heart of the universe), is known mainly for the Panama Canal and sports figures such as boxer Roberto “manos de piedra” Duran and NY Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera. Panamanian art, however, is not as legendary. One of Panama’s most stunning art forms is dear to Panamanians everywhere and hiding in plain sight: the ubiquitous pollera, the National Costume of Panama.

Polleras have origins in Spain and are a popular style of dress for women throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. They may not be unique to Panama, but polleras are definitively Panamanian. Different regions and provinces have their own distinguishing styles and histories within this national tradition. Polleras are popularly and prominently displayed during carnival season, especially at the famous Parade of the Thousand Polleras (desfile de las mil polleras) in the city of Las Tablas, located in the province of Los Santos. Nevertheless, Panamanian women of all ages and ethnicities wear variations of polleras for innumerable occasions.

Latin American Festival, 1993. Black Mosaic Research Project, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
Smithsonian Institution, Harold Dorwin, photographer.
These photographs from a 1993 Latin American Festival show women and girls donning various pollera styles, each with typical hair ornamentation. Notice the diversity of dress, ranging from the all white pollera to the more colorful floral designs and ribbons. The beauty of the outfits and hair styles is unmistakable. But these photographs can also conjure feelings of national and cultural pride, as the crowning of this Panamanian Princess did not occur on the isthmus, but rather here in Washington, D.C. Polleras represent tangible and emotive Panamanian tradition, perhaps even more so when worn outside of Panama itself.

Anacostia Community Museum’s 1994 exhibition Black Mosaic: Community, Race, and Ethnicity among Black Immigrants in Washington, D.C. provided the opportunity to collect and display invaluable material culture from the diverse national identities that are present in the Washington D.C. metro area. These photographs are just some of many which, in part, show homeland traditions carried out abroad. They are part of the Black Mosaic archives at ACM.

Latin American Festival, 1993. Black Mosaic Research Project,
Anacostia Community Museum Archives
Smithsonian Institution, Harold Dorwin, photographer.
A pollera is a complex outfit with a detailed vocabulary. Very generally, it is created with a short or long sleeved blouse (blusa) and a full tiered skirt (pollerón). Gold jewelry hangs from the woman’s neck and earrings and hair adornments complete the look. As with many forms of clothing, the material itself and accompanying embellishments may provide insights into wealth, status, regional flair, traditions, and availability of resources, among other factors.

Some polleras are completely white, while others are white on top with patterns or embellishments. Some, but not all, polleras have colorful wool pompoms (motas or bellotas) on the front and back of the shirt. The lower half can boast colorful designs and ribbons. The artistry of each pattern is not random, but rather made with specific and nameable techniques.

The same range of expression applies for headgear and jewelry. Typical hair ornamentations include gold combs and intricate beaded hair pins, called tembleques, that are made to move (or temblar), when the wearer dances. Some tembleques are made in only gold and white, while others are more colorful. Further, some regions do not use the hair pins and opt instead for flowers, crowns, headwraps, or a hat called un sombrero pintado, which is also typical in Panama. Although there are classic gold pieces worn around the neck, including a gold rosary, variations exist in the amount and style of jewelry worn.

Latin American Festival, 1993. Black Mosaic Research Project, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
Smithsonian Institution, Harold Dorwin, photographer.

As shown in these pictures from Anacostia Community Museum archives, polleras are an accessible, tangible, and striking representation of panameñidad (Pamananian-ness) for all ages. The most intricately handmade polleras can cost thousands of dollars. However, the grandeur of the look is achieved at all levels and can be observed best as the wearer dances and turns, showing off the artistic construction and movement of the skirt and tembleques. The flow and beauty of the outfit is notably displayed in folkloric dancing -- or any dancing really -- where polleras are the essential female costumes.

Polleras exist in many nations. However, the small and diverse country of Panama transformed them into a distinctively Panamanian art. They are celebrated not only on the isthmus, but by Panamanians everywhere.

Ariana A. Curtis, Ph.D.
Curator (Latino Studies)
Anacostia Community Museum


  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful part of Panamanian culture!

  2. I loved your post. Thank you for such a descriptive and educational piece of writing! (SAM)

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