by Jose T. Tunon
The apparel of slave women and nursemaids during the Spanish colonial era of the Isthmus has become, with the passing of time, the national costume of Panama and one of the most beautiful and most admired typical dresses of the world.
From its humble beginnings in the servants' quarters of the wealthy of Old Panama, the pollera gradually invaded the refined drawing rooms of high society, becoming a prized possession of all Panamanian women, from the rustic maidens of the countryside to the highborn ladies of the aristocracy.
There are those who claim that the pollera had its beginning in Spain because of its similarity to the modest dress worn by women in the small towns of Spain in colonial days. And still others will insist that the pollera originated with fashionable ladies of Old Panama.
The idea most accepted, however is that the dress was inspired by the garment worn by the black slaves, later becoming the dress of the women of the populace, evolving into what it is today, the national costume for women and a symbol of Panamanian nationality.
There are three classes of polleras: the formal dress known as the"pollera de gala"; the pollera montuna, the everyday dress; and the weddingpollera, originally from the Ocu area.
According to Panamanian folklore, the all white pollera was worn by nursemaids, while the other female servants wore the brightly colored calico skirt that became the pollera montuna, the everyday dress.
THE FORMAL POLLERA
The formal pollera, used for festive occasions and holidays, is made of fine white linen, cambric or voile. At least 12 yards of material is used to make a pollera. A traditional pollera has a pure white background so that the blended tints of embroidered designs will stand out. These designs traditionally are of flowers, birds, garlands, or other combinations of designs, preferably of native origin and feeling. Exquisite designs are made in cross-stitch or by the use of a more elegant needlework known as "talco en sombra," or applique which is characteristic of Panama. It consists of two pieces of material sewn together. A design is made on one piece of the fabric, the design is then carefully cut out and its edges turned under and sewn to the background with tiny invisible stitches.
The formal pollera consists of the blouse (wider than the montuna blouse), the skirt and the petticoat or petticoats, as one to as many as three are worn under the gown. The blouse of all three polleras is white and worn off the shoulder. For the formal dress, the blouse has a neck band at the top of the bodice made of the traditional "mundillo," a fine handmade bone lace made in the Interior of Panama, which is edged with a heavier lace. The band has openings in the front and in the back, where wool pompons are placed. The neck band is interwoven with wool, the same color as the pompons. Two ribbons, called "gallardetes," hang from the waist, one in front and one in the back, and match the color of the wool. The heelless shoes, soft slippers in velveteen or satin, are also the same color as the wool pompons. No stockings are worn.
A beautifully embroidered
ruffle of fine wide Valencian lace is attached to
the mundillo band and falls to the middle of the bodice. Another ruffle is added under the first one and this falls to the waist, or
to a little lower than the waist. Both of these
ruffles are exquisitely embroidered or worked
in applique. The blouse has push-up sleeves with an embroidered ruffle, also trimmed in lace.
The skirt of the formal pollera is always made of fine white material, fine enough for the handwork on the petticoats to show through. It is loose, full and long, reaching the ankles. The skirt is put together in two pieces; the upper section comes to the knees and is separated by an insertion of mundillo lace, with the material heavily gathered so it can be spread out and be admired. Twice as much fabric goes into the lower part of the skirt, making a circle. The edge of the skirt is trimmed with about 25 yards of lace, 4 or 5 inches wide. The magnificent skirt is gathered at the waist and tied by four narrow ribbons, two crossing in the front and two in the back, running through the button holes of two gold buttons at either side of the waist.
The petticoats are handmade of very fine white linen, as elaborate as the skirt, with laces, cutwork and embroidery. Usually two are worn with thepollera, sometimes three.
The hairdress is an important part of the pollera. The hair is parted in the center and tightly pulled back behind the ears, forming two braids. The braids are covered with several pairs of "tembleques," the glittering sprays of flowerlike filigree ornaments made of gold, silver, and pearls; their flexible stems "trembling" as the wearer moves. Two kinds of combs are worn. One is crested with elaborate gold work, called "de balcon" as they resemble the design of balcony railings. These are placed toward the back of the head on either side. The second type of comb is called "de perlas" because the gold work is encrusted with pearls. These are worn a little to the front of the head. Earrings are large, of various shapes, in gold or silver, with rosettes of pearls or coral.
Several gold chains are worn around the neck. It can vary from four to eight, and are an important part of the jewelry worn with the formal dress. These can include coral and pearl rosaries, gold coins in filigree frames on plain gold chains, a gold cross on a chain or a narrow black ribbon, gold cords with religious emblems, scapularies, and the "cadena chata," the flat chain with a gold fish at the end. The cadena chata is totally Panamanian in significance According to legend, in the old days, when a wet nurse had successfully weaned a baby, the mother presented the nurse with a cadena chata as a reward.
The montuna pollera consists of colorful very full skirt made from calico. It is worn with a Panama hat, known as "pintao," that is made in the mountain area of Cocle province. The blouse is similar to the formal pollera blouse, but much less elaborate and with only one ruffle. The slippers match the color of the pompons and ribbons.
The wedding dress is similar to the formal pollera. It is made the same way as the formal pollera, but all the embroidery and applique is also done in white. The wool pompon and the wool woven in the top of the blouse is traditionally a pale pink or a light blue. The petticoats, of course, are white, magnificently embroidered and lace encrusted.
Although many women make their own polleras, spending months and perhaps years to complete them, most of the polleras are made by expert seamstresses in the Provinces of Herrera and Los Santos, and especially in the town of Las Tablas. These women may be seen sitting in their doorways making mundillo or embroidering sections of material. A number of women may be working on one pollera at the same time which may take a year to complete and cost several hundred dollars, depending on how elaborate it is. Polleras are heirlooms, handed down from one generation to another. A young girl is very lucky to inherit a pollera and the jewels that go with it.
Mi Pollera, mi
Mi pollera es colorada!
La tuya es blanca,
La mia es rosada,
No me la toques
Que esta planchada!
The words to "Mi Pollera" contributed by: Ginny (Kleefkens) Rankin CHS '58
Last Update: October 20, 1998