Sunday, 13 December 2015


Ubiquitous imagery.

In a world of globalised, western-influenced fashion, it's invigorating to watch the strength of resistance and the power of pride that's exhibited in the Andean ladies. The baseball cap may have conquered the world and the Andean male, but the ladies are in aggressive attack mode.

Quechuan style: Cusco.

Only I have a problem. The varying hats that we see bear no resemblance to the near-ubiquitous painted and woven images that are sold in all the artisanal markets the length and breadth of the Andean highlands. The slumbering figure in native dress, a wide brimmed hat, surrounded by a clutch of terracotta pots. It's taken three trips and a lot of pedalling to find the answer.

Puritan in style, if not in colour.

Pre- the conquistador's arrival, each community, each ethnic clan, each regional district had their own style of hat, which, along with the fringes of the pollera's underskirt, it was possible to realise where a lady originated from. A dialect of couture. A map of ethnicity. Of course the Spanish tried to eradicate these tendencies towards cultural and national identity, and attempted to enforce European clothing styles. Like in the religious iconography, the carvings and the paintings in the ecclesiastical establishments, there was a low level of rebellion. A cuy, a guinea pig, in San Francisco's portraiture; the stone-carved puma with foliage erupting from its mouth in Arequipa - so reminiscent of the pagan green-man carvings found in early British churches. So it's no surprise that the hats survived the culturacide.

The Bowler of Bolivia, alongside the 'Chullo'; the beanie with ear flaps so favoured by every gringo visitor, are the most recognisable, but there are many more. Although not as many as there once were. Over fifty styles are held as museum pieces, many of which are unfortunately no longer manufactured.

Tales of how the bowler arrived in the Bolivia are many. The shipment that was delivered in the 1920s for the Irish Navigators on the rail construction gangs and were found to be too small. Said shipment subsequently sold on to a wholesaler. This does seem to be the most plausible, if only because the bowler-hat-wearing andeñas carry theirs with total panache, perched on top of their heads, generally at a rakish angle. I've yet to see one fall off. I've seen them readjusting them, or when it rains, removing them to cover with a poly bag, and can confirm that there's no recourse to pins, clips or straps. There's some alchemy involved. The bowler hat might have been born in Victorian Britain, but it's been perfected in Bolivia.

You might have expected to see one style form predominating in a group of adjacent pueblos, and then would anticipate them to be marginally adapted in the next clutch of places. It's not so. The diversity in style from one small area to another is extreme, and there seems little in the way of progressive design development. Which for us is exciting, you never know what to expect next.

In the space of one week of cycling, (not a great distance given the severity of the inclines), we've had four very differing styles. A black felted Homburg whose dish brim is filled with real flowers, to the 'Montera', an upturned fruit bowl, appropriately decked in luminous plastic fruit; a stove-pipe adorned with a complementary cockade; and now an exacerbated version of the straw hat. A hat whose brim, in the time it took us to descend from the high ground, expanded to encompass the (admittedly diminutive) Andeña's shoulders and whose crown has acquired Puritan proportions. Whilst the conservative Bolivian bowler comes in the dappled shades of black, brown and green, the range of colours exhibited in Perù are near kaleidoscopic. From lipstick pink to lime green, crushed mulberry to sky blue. And these ladies have only gone out to do their shopping.

A Texas rancher and the Ladies of Ascot simply don't have a look in.