My Native Costume of Panamá: La Pollera

Click here to examine the stitching of Julia's pollera

Julia Foxwell
Spring 1998
English 223
Dr. Polly Stewart, Professor

Folkloric studies have classified native costumes as objects of material culture.  Folk costume becomes unique to a region or a nation.  Folklorists who discuss this genre focus on the socialization input and how the item helps to maintain individual and group identity (Yoder, 1972 as cited in K. E. Wilson, 1996). However, through my own experience, I would like to include folk costumes in a fairly new genre, objects of memory.  In this essay I will attempt to relate my native dress, la pollera,to these concepts.

The national costume of Panamá is without doubt the best known representation of the country's folklore.  This dress has won many worldwide competitions among Spanish American dresses for its uniqueness, aesthetic beauty, opulence, and its rich Hispanic heritage.  Being totally hand made, the dress has become a unique expression of art and technical virtuosity.

Although the dress is unique to Panamá, it shows influence of other countries such as Spain, France and England; countries that were fashion trend setters during the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  Spanish women who arrived with the conquerors in the sixteenth century formed the first "societies". These women wore clothes that were indicators of their affluence and social status (De León, 1981). Dresses were generally made of light linen with ample skirts. The Spanish fashion began to evolve into a local design more suitable to the climate demands.  Hand made lace, imported from Valencia, Spain, was popular during that time to adorn the neckline and the wrists.  Among materials imported from England was wide cotton cloth with flowers stamped over white or colored background.  Consequently, one of the first folkloric items used by women in the early colonial times was very similar to the skirts worn by gypsies in Southern Spain (De León, 1981) Regional dresses in Mexico and other Latin American countries are also made with long flowing skirts, lace ornaments and ribbons - also exhibiting the Spanish influence.  However, they are all different in craftsmanship from the Panamanian dress.

According to Hostettler, the oldest written account of the pollera is found in an article written in a 1815 edition of the Spanish newspaper, Diario de Madrid.  The article describes a festival that took place in Panamá to celebrate the restoration of Fernando VII to the Spanish throne,

"The picture of the King was placed in an exquisitely decorated cart,... pulled by thirty women of the town richly dressed in Polleras" (p. 205)

Another historical account was given in 1876 by Armando Reclús, engineer and Director of the French Commission that explored Panamá.  He gave a detailed description of the dress:

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 designs.  Over the shore sleeved blouse are three ruffles similar in appearance but so low that the upper chest and back are left practically nude.  Many of the women wear large gold combs and earrings made in the Choco area... (Hostettler, 1977 p. 205)

Folklorist Elliot Oring, in his introductory comments to Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblettís article Objects of Memory: Material Culture as Life Review, says that people become involved with many objects, too numerous to be counted, throughout a lifetime.  These objects "become fundamental in conceptualizing and symbolizing the self" (pg. 329). They become objects of memory that help one to reminisce about experiences.  An object of memory in my life is my native costume, la pollera.  The national costume of Panamá is without doubt the best known representation of the country's folklore.  This dress has won many worldwide competitions among Spanish American dresses for its uniqueness, aesthetic beauty, opulence, and its rich Hispanic heritage.  Being totally hand made, the dress becomes a unique expression of art and technical virtuosity.  Owning a Pollera de gala and wearing it to an important event fulfills a childhood dream for many Panamanian young ladies. As I reminisce about my life, I can recall many memories associated with my native dress.

I learned folkloric dances as a high school student because it was part of our formation and instruction. However, I did not own a pollera.  Whenever we danced, we had to borrow the dress from someone else.  During home economics classes they taught us how to draw the delicate patterns on linen cloth and how to sew the complicated patterns of stitches to produce our own dress.  Because this task was labor intensive, and I am not a good dressmaker, I almost had given up hope of ever owning one. Besides, the cost of buying one already made was prohibitive on my meager salary.

As an adult, I became part of the Panamanian Folkloric Group under the direction of Margarita Escala. I remember dancing to the tune of  el tambor and las cumbias.  As I recall the beat of the drums and the words to the songs, scenes of the past parade through my mind. The words to a popular tune speak to the pride of owning a classical pollera.  It goes like this:

Yo quiero bailar tambor
con mi clásica Pollera.
Me gusta bailar tambor
con una "jilachanueva"
Mi Pollera, Mi Pollera,
Mi Pollera es colorada.
I want to dance the tambor
In my typical pollera
I like dancing the tambor
with my "new threads"
My pollera, my pollera,
My pollera which is red.

Julia's pollera in 1968 During the summer of 1968, the folkloric group of which I was a member, under the direction of Margarita Escala, was selected to dance at the Presidential Palace to honor Dr. Arnulfo Arias-Madrid, the newly elected President of Panama.  I was so excited about participating in such an important event, that my father gave me $1,500 to purchase a dress from doña Bertina viuda de Terrientes.  Mrs. Terrientes was famous for making polleras for well known, wealthy Panamanian women (see clipping). I remember going with Margarita Escala to select the dress that would be more appropriate for my complexion and to purchase the ribbons and wool color that would make it stand out best.  Out of my own savings I purchased my peticote (undergarment) for only $150.  This piece alone is a masterpiece of stitchery work. It is all done in white threads, but the work is magnificent.

The dress we selected consists of white linen cloth with black appliqué ornaments and delicate embroidery patterns, no two of which are alike in the whole dress.

To see one of these pulled-stitch embroidery patterns up close and personal and in its appliquéd context, click on the thumbnail

pollera01a pollera01b pollera02a pollera02b pollera02c pollera03a
pollera03b pollera03c pollera03d pollera04a pollera04b pollera05a
pollera05b pollera05c pollera06a pollera06b pollera06c pollera06d
pollera07a pollera07b pollera07c pollera07d pollera08a pollera08b
pollera08c pollera09a pollera09b pollera09c pollera10a pollera10b
pollera10c pollera10d pollera11a pollera11b pollera11c pollera12a
pollera12b pollera12c pollera12d pollera13a pollera13b pollera13c
pollera13d pollera14a pollera14b pollera14c pollera16a pollera16b
pollera16c pollera16d pollera17a pollera17b pollera17c pollera18a
pollera18b pollera18c pollera18d pollera19a pollera19b

We chose light pink as the contrasting color for the ribbons that graced the waist on the front and back, also for the wool pompoms worn on the blouse and the matching satin slippers for the feet.

The jewelry that goes with the dress is also expensive because it consists of gold chains and other specially crafted pieces. Among obligatory items of jewelry to be worn with the dress are the cadena chata (flat chain), the cadena escapulario (scapulary chain), the cadena del rosario (rosary chain), the cordón de mosqueta (mosquetas chain), the cadena de monedas (coins chain), the cadena solitaria (solitary chain) and others. Earrings are also special; the dormilonas are long gold earrings with an emerald or a ruby implanted in the center of a flower shaped filigree. Mosqueta earrings can also be worn; they are made of gold filigree with petals.  Skilled artisans construct the tembleques (head pieces) of white fish scales and pearls with golden threads running through them.  They are shaped like native flowers, or butterflies.  They make them in pairs to adorn the head on an even fashion on both sides.  In addition, three pairs of gold plated peinetas (side combs), one large ornate back comb, and the parches (temple plate covers).  Around the neck, the tapahuesos (bone cover), a gold or cloth strip with a hanging gold cross or charm.  On the center of the chest, over the wool adornment, lays the mosqueta, a rosette of pearls in gold filigree. Most of the jewelry has a lot of meaning which has been acquired through tradition.  For example, the rosary and Scapulary chains are representative of the strong Catholic influence in the country.  Also, the template plate covers were traditionally worn to cover a black resin used to cure headaches.

After we danced for the President, it was time to put the dress away. I remember the tips given to my by Margarita, who owns many polleras,to store it safely.  On October 11,1968, a military junta overthrew President Arias and slipped the country under military rule.  Ten days later, I married  William Clinton Foxwell and shortly after I moved to the United States. I brought my treasure with me.  I never thought that I would ever wear it again. However, as I became a part of the community in Salisbury, Maryland, several opportunities arose for me to wear my pollera.

Julia's pollera at PBW convention Bronner (1966) expresses that "cultural ideas and traditions are expressed in material forms." It was my desire to share my cultures and my traditions with the members of the new community in which I lived. Acting as a goodwill ambassador for Panamá, I addressed the Salisbury Business an Professional Women (BPW) during the fall of 1974.  I spoke about the country and its cultures while wearing my dress. I even did a dance for them.  Little did I know then that I would later become a member and even president of that organization. Neither did I know how membership in this organization would launch my years of community service. I proudly wore my pollera while dancing with my son, Ricardo, during his senior year at Parkside High School .  Since then, I have worn my pollera numerous times during Salisbury Festivalís celebrations and while making presentations for elementary and high schools in the Salisbury area.

One of my dearest memories related to my dress was made while attending an international conference of the BPW in Washington, D.C. I joined the group of women that represented Panamá at the conference.  The organizers scheduled them to have a special presentation of folkloric dances at the end of the conference. My Panamanian BPW friends were glad to accept my offer to come back to Salisbury and get my pollera to participate with them in the presentation.  According to them, it added variety to the group because they did not bring a black and white pollera. I later learned that the only person that did not feel very happy about "outsiders' joining the group was Jorge Valles, one of the founding members of the Grup Folklórico de Panamá in Washington (GRUFOLPAWA). He was concerned that someone who could not dance or did not know what to wear would be detrimental to the group's presentation. Much to our surprise , Jorge and I had not seen each other for twenty-two years, since leaving our high school classrooms.  When we met each other face-to-face, the rejoicing for both of us was indescribable, and the many people around us could no understand what was going  on. We renewed our friendship and, since that event, we maintain frequent contact between our families.

Another memory that is dear to me comes from Wendy, my only daughter.  As a small child, she learned to appreciate my dress and my culture.  My mother had a child pollera made for her when she was eight years old.  She also dreamed of owning her own dress when she became an adult.  Nevertheless, her dream was different.  She could envision herself getting married at the Salisbury park in a white pollera, carrying a bouquet of fresh flowers.  Most of her dreams were fulfilled. She and I travelled to Panamá at the beginning of 1996 to have a dress made to her size.  My brother later sent the dress by mail along with the most delicate tembleques for her hair.  They arrived just in time for her March wedding at Immanuel Baptist Church.  We had snow fall on that day. Getting married at the park on that particular day would have been really cold.

When I was approaching fifty years of age, I contemplated not wearing the dress again because I felt that I was getting too old to make a good presentation of the dress. About that time, Doña Marina, a lady in her mid-seventies, came to Salisbury with GRUFOLPAWA to dance at the Salisbury Festival. As I admired her dress and her stamina, I also shared her pride while she danced the tamborito with a  younger partner.  At that point I realized that will never be too old to enjoy wearing my dress and to continue making memories.

Whether an object of memory or an object of material culture, my pollera has given me a lot of pleasurable memories throughout my lifetime.


Hostettlerís interprectation of Dora P. de Zárate's identification of the pollera as a nation symbol (as cited in Hostettler, A., 1977) differs from mine. Hostettler likens the pollera to the dirndl, Germanyís national costume under Hitler's orders. She considers Zárate's assertion politicized.  In my opinion, Hitler imposed a dress code -- a uniform so to speak -- on Aryan women.  Instead, I tend to agree with Yoder when he says that "folk costume is the visible, outward badge of folk-group identity, worn consciously to express that identity" (1972, pl 295).  For me, the Pollera is an artistic expression that varies according to the creativity and the craftsmanship of the maker while at the same time it is constructed according to traditional standards. Besides, the dress is worn at will and with pride.  Moreover, Yoder argues that "the purpose of the folk costume is to deindividualize the individual" through conformity to the community (1972, p. 308), thereby promoting group solidarity and keeping personal and group boundaries.

Bogatyrev (191), argues that "the tendency of the folk costumes is NOT to change -- grandchildren must wear the costumes of their grandfathers... folk cosume is subject to the sanction of the collective" (p. 33). The pollera certainly fits this definition - it has been a tradition in Panamá since the country was a Spanish colony.  It continued to be traditional through the Isthmus's affiliation with Colombia, and it remains today as the hallmark of people with national pride.  Only a Panamanian can understand the deep feelings associated with the presence and symbolism of the pollera.

The pollera can be studied as an object of material culture.  It has many variations according to the material used in making it.  Among the variations we find the Pollera de encaje, a  variation that uses laces and ribbons, and the Pollera de gala which is the subject of this study. Each variation has different embroidery, hair styles, or jewelry.

In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, Bronner quotes British anthropologist A. Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers (1875) as saying that "material culture represent the outward signs and symbols of particular ideas in the mind" (p. 463). From this stance the Pollera de gala, in all its opulence and magnificence represents the elitism, social differences, and boundaires that have existed in Panamá's society since colonial times. The abundance of gold in the country during the Spanish colonization became an outward expression of wealth exhibited by women through the use of jewelry. The making of the dress is labor intensive and currently dressmakers are charging more for their labor, making the dress and accessories very expensive and not easily accessible to everyone.