Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Zorn, Elayne. “(Re-)Fashioning Identity: Late Twentieth-Century Transformations in Dress and Society in Boliva.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 343–354.


Copyright © 1994 Elayne Zorn


The members of most of Bolivia's large indigenous ethnic groups, such as the nearly 22,000 people of ayllu Sakaka of northern Potosi, continue to wear a distinctive daily dress. Such dress nationally and internationally is emblematic of the Sakaka's separate, and to many inferior, identity as Indians. To the wearers also, or perhaps fundamentally, such dress marks a division between clothed indigenous humans (runa) and naked foreign outsiders (q'ara). This interpretation coincides with hegemonic non-Indian evaluations of Indian separateness, but reverses the hierarchy.

Yet most members of these large indigenous ethnic groups, whom I refer to by the name of their group or as Andeans, also wear (or strategically deploy) other styles of clothing. Each style has its own gender, class, ethnic, and/or "racial" denotations and connotations. Dress also varies by generation and by region. These styles of dress code and symbolize the Sakaka's varied experiences, and mark and help "construct" their positions of social status, achieved or aspired, in late twentieth-century Bolivian society.

Dress remains a major creative focus for many Andeans, in which people invest substantial resources of time, materials, money, and labor, with the secondary effect that as people create and wear cloth they also make statements about themselves. This paper concentrates on Sakaka dress in relation to issues of identity, since cloth remains a principal medium through which identity is expressed and symbolized, in the Andes as elsewhere. Other indications of identity, which I do not go into here, include residence, language(s), religious practices, music, and so forth. Anthropologists and other social scientists recently have paid increasing attention to questions of identity, in part because issues of identity and ethnic difference stubbornly re-surface in the post-Cold War era, often with tragic results.

In Bolivia, a pluri-cultural, multi-lingual nation, a woman who wears non-European dress, i.e., urban Indian clothes, cannot teach in that country's schools—a point made by Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, Bolivia's first Aymara Indian Vice-President, about his wife who still dresses "de pollera" (wears Indian-style dress). The pollera, a full-pleated skirt derived from Spanish colonial dress, is worn by urban Indian women, some rural Indian women, and some townswomen. The pollera has a number of variable stylistic features, which include length, material, number of pleats, color, and so forth. While in practice the pollera's use crosses class lines, that full-pleated skirt symbolizes the Indian woman to Bolivian society. As such its prohibition from national classrooms symbolizes the exclusion of Indians from national power and illustrates the importance of dress in the politics of identity.

My paper for the 1990 TSA Symposium, which was based on my two-year residence and Ph.D. research with the Sakaka, examined the creation of a new style of Sakaka dress, co-incident with the massive sales of heirloom textiles in the ethnic textile market. (Use of old textiles may be one of many factors, as I explained in my 1990 paper.) That "new" "traditional" style, made and worn primarily by young people, was considered by the Sakaka as the most fashionable and interesting of other potential styles, but it was not the only Sakaka style. In this paper I complicate the picture I painted in 1990 by examining the other types of dress worn by Sakaka people in various contexts, in which dress styles indicate different status positions. I also contextualize these styles of dress in relation to the Sakaka's Indian and non-Indian "neighbors" in Bolivia.

In the Andes today fashion and distinctions in dress remain important in marking and symbolizing both individual and group identity. Andeans such as the Sakaka selectively choose and use (that is, appropriate) technologies, materials, and images to represent themselves, with fine distinctions, as belonging or aspiring to the statuses of runa (Andean), cholita/cholo (urban Indian), or mestiza/o (person of mixed-blood)/Boliviana/o (Bolivian). The Sakaka also use dress to define themselves in relation to other neighboring runa.