Clothes have often been a sign of distinction throughout history, whether it’s a uniform signifying you belong to a particular group or sumptuary laws decreeing that you’re not allowed to wear certain clothes. A bowler hat shows you’re a British businessman from the mid-20th century... or a sexy cholita lady.
The Aymara people of Bolivia have been an underclass for centuries – ruled by the Incas, Spanish, mestizas – until Evo Morales took power in 2006. Wearing patterned clothes that set him apart from his predecessors, Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous president has made massive changes in the lives of his people, who comprise more than half of the population. And in a very real sense, clothes are political here.
In episode two of season two of States of Undress, Hailey Gates wanders into a brightly coloured parade on her way to purchase a wedding gift in El Alto. From there, she joins local designer Glenda Yañez, who is putting together a pollera line for the upcoming Iconoclast Fashion Show on Lake Titicaca. The polleras are those Aymara women you see in petticoats, bright colours and, most strikingly, bowler hats. Two generations ago, they were often banned from restaurants and public transport, but today they are out and fierce.
Newsreader Beetha Acarapi, lucha libre wrestler Carmen Rosa, the aforementioned Glenda Yañez and other women Gates encounters all say they are doing what they do to reflect a previously hidden audience – and further the rights of women. In a nation with appalling statistics on domestic violence and femicide, they are united in showing women can be strong, too. They can fight. They can earn. They can have power.
Morales took the presidency on a wave of support as the former leader of the coca union, which was at war with DEA-backed soldiers destroying crops as part of the broader drug war. After he kicked out the Americans, they retaliated by cancelling trade deals. He counter-struck by banning the import of second-hand clothes, claiming it was beneath national dignity to wear America’s cast-offs. Again, fashion becomes political, and those items we toss next to the overflowing charity bins in car parks are a source of tension and black-market profit here.
Bolivia is not a united country, and while Morales has made life immeasurably better for the Aymara people, there’s a great deal of resentment against the mestizos, or white-skinned Bolivians, who held power for so long. It remains to be seen whether his positive steps will translate into a future golden age, or descend into racial politics and further strife.
Amazing what a show about outfits can teach you, eh?
Watch States of Undress every Thursday at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND. You can watch the episode in Bolivia now at SBS On Demand: