Bolivian Cholitas and The Secret of the Bowler Hats

Since its invention in 1849 in London, many famous people have been sporting bowler hats. You may recall the likes of Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and even Mr.Potato head from Toy Story 2 wearing these types of hats.

Bolivian Cholitas

However, none of them have worn the hat with the same style and flair as the “Cholitas” of South America – specially the women in Bolivia.

bolivian cholitas

The first thing that will strike you when you visit Bolivia are these bowler hats. They are everywhere, and most of the women wear them.

bolivian cholitas

While you will see women in Peru wearing bowler hats, it’s really in Bolivia that the women have stood out on their own when it comes to the tradition of wearing bowler hats.

bolivian cholitas

Where did this tradition start?

While we were on a city tour in La Paz, our tour guide informed us of the reason why these hats are so popular. The story goes as follows:

Back in Manchester, shortly after the bowler hats were invented, two brothers were manufacturing a line of bowler hats. Their plan was to sell them to the British railway workers who were working in Bolivia at the time.

bolivian cholitas

However, when the hats arrived to South America they found that they were way too small to fit the heads of the men.

So, instead of throwing them out they decided to create a “fictional” story to tell the Bolivian Cholitas. This story was that all the fashionable women in Europe were going around wearing these bowler hats and it was the new fashion trend!

bolivian cholitas

The rest is history.

There’s also a myth that those who wore the hats did not have any fertility problems!

bolivian cholitas

The bowler hats have been making a huge comeback in recent years in Bolivia and the locals embrace them as part of their traditional clothing. Nowadays, the bowler hat is part of Bolivian national pride.

As you can see in the photos, these hats don’t actually fit the women’s heads (just like it didn’t fit the heads of the men back when they first came on the scene).

bolivian cholitas

The position of the hats

We also found out that the hats are worn on different parts of the head by the women in order to signify their marital status!

Wearing the hat in the middle of the head means that the women is married.

bolivian cholitas

To the side means that they are either single or widowed.

bolivian cholitas

Wearing them to the back of the head jokingly means that their relationship is “complicated”!

bolivian cholitas

The Cholita

It should be mentioned that the term “Cholita” was once used as a derogatory phrase for indigenous heritage girls. However, over the years the meaning has developed more positive assumptions.

Despite the obvious influence of western fashion trends in Bolivia, these Cholitas have maintained their traditional dress sense.

bolivian cholitas

The fashion that you see today in the country was as a result of the Spanish inquisition, when the indigenous people were forced by the Spanish to adapt their dress sense to that of the European trends of the era.

Cholita fashion was once upon a time viewed as a poor country woman’s attire. However, Cholitas are enjoying cultural pride and wear their traditional outfits with both dignity and confidence these days.

Cholita outfits

Due to the fact that Bolivia is so culturally diverse, there’s no typical Bolivian clothing. The choice of clothes differs according to the region, income levels, climate and of course – personal choice.

bolivian cholitas

A Cholita’s outfit usually consists of the following:

  1. El Sombrero – The Bowler Hat

We’ve are talked about this earlier.

  1. La Pollera

This is a type of pleated skirt which gives the baggy look that you can see in the photos. It achieves this by using up to 8 meters of cloth!

The skirt goes all the way down to the ankles, which are considered to be the most attractive part of a woman by the majority of Bolivans!

bolivian cholitas

  1. Las Enaguas

Underneath the skirt is a colourful petticoat, which helps puff up the skirt.

  1. La Blusa

A blouse that can be worn with either long or short sleeves depending on the climate.

5.  La Manta

A thick shawl is worn around the shoulders of the women. The material is either llama or alpaca wool. The colour is monotone and is pinned at the front using a long type of safety pin.

bolivian cholitas

  1. Los Calzados

Flat shoes with a rounded toe is what’s usually worn on the feet.

  1. Joyas

Earnings and brooches are used by Cholitas to accessorise their outfits. Funnily enough, during competitions or parades, the wealthy Cholitas will often hire security guards to walk with them to protect their expensive jewellery.

bolivian cholitas

That’s another post in itself – about the wealthy class of Bolivian women.

We spent a few weeks in Bolivia in 2014, visiting places like the Salt Flats of Uyuni, Potosi – one of the worlds highest cities and La Paz. Overall, we can honestly say that Bolivia was our favourite country that we visited in South America.

bolivian cholitas

The combination of climate, scenery and local traditions made it a country that seemed like you were stepping back in time, or even on a movie set. We loved it there (apart from the poor Wifi) and we’d highly recommend you get to experience some travel there if you get the chance.

bolivian cholitas

Have any of you guys ever heard of this story about the reason why the bowler hats are worn in Bolivia? If so, please share what you’ve heard in the comments below. We’re very interested to hear different variations on this tradition.

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About the Author

Carlo and Florence are an Irish couple who left home in 2013 to pursue their dreams of travelling the world while building an online business so that they could work from anywhere. They've both visited over 50 countries together so far. Stay in touch with them on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and SnapChat.

6 Responses to “Bolivian Cholitas and The Secret of the Bowler Hats”

  1. Janice Nason says:

    I loved this post!!! Great information. I’d actually wondered about the hats. Bolivia is on my list of places to get to.

    • Carlo says:

      Hey Janice, how are you keeping?

      Yeah, the hat story is a cool one. When you go there you’ll see them literally everywhere. So cool.

      Great country – apart from the WiFi 😉

  2. Jimmy Hillberg says:

    Just came back from a 3-week trip to Bolivia. Love the atmosphere over there. Everyday feels like an adventure. Very informative about the bowler hats.

  3. Rosa schoepflin says:

    Excelente reportaje

  4. Edward Vickerman says:

    Thanks for this. I was interested in the explanation of the hats. We landed at La Paz for q two week trip, with Explore Worldwide mostly in Peru. It took a day or two to acclimatise to the altitude. A few days later we spent.a night on the Island of the Sun in the Bolivian part of Lake Titicaca There were no mod con but that night our Explore leader arranged for us to visit the museum. It was an interesting experience to be shown round by the curator by torch light but he only spoke Spanish, the language also used for the hand-written labels of the exhibits.i Memorable but not informative. Our leader had tremendous enthusiasm for the Incas which made it a very special trip.

    I’m just sorry not to be fit enough to travel any more.

    keep up the good work,
    Edward (if you put this on your site please first name only)

  5. Great post, love the bowler hats! I think your guide might have been having you on when he said many Bolivians find the ankle to be the most attraction part of a woman, though 🙂

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