Machu Picchu receives the accolade of being one of the seven wonders of the modern world, but it’s the mystical brims and peaks on the heads of the locals that this traveling trendspotter believes deserve a mention. The textiles-hungry among us have long been fascinated by the handcrafts and weavings created by the the indigenous citizens of Quechua descent who live in this Andean region of South America, and there is much to inspire during just a stroll through the plaza of the smallest mountain towns. Andean menswear has been much diluted with Western sartorial norms and it is only on festival days that they demonstrate the full extent of their splendor. Although the traditional hat called the chullo, knitted of alpaca wool with earflaps and often reversible, made traditionally by a father for his son, is a common sight, it also forms a warm underlayer to the sun-shading sombrero, a look that boasts a certain swagger when paired with the ubiquitous poncho. However the women’s everyday dress which still closely adheres to traditions that have been in place for generations leaves the men in the shade.
Head to toe layers of history
Traces of Incan and Huari heritage merge alongside more recent Spanish Colonial history in the same outfit. Layers of capes and shawls and blankets in every color help keep the women warm against the mountain chill when much of their daily business is still conducted out of doors. Stripey lengths of alpaca wool are wrapped, draped, and pinned into floor length skirts. A square woven cloth called a manta is secured with a sturdy pin around the shoulders and doubles up as a means to carry children or cargo. Underneath, the juyuna is a small wool jacket with front panels embroidered or decorated with buttons. Polleras are flared handwoven wool skirts that fall just below the knee, often trimmed with a band of colorful embroidery, called a puyto. These are often worn one on top of the other as needed against the weather or for celebrations. This spontaneous building of an outfit in a palette so brilliant that Pantone would struggle to find names for it all results in a surprising harmony. Nothing clashes because no single color is given precedence over others.
Yet the crowning glory of the women’s looks are the head-turning hats which strike a fashion cord from one end of the Sacred Valley to the other. The sheer variety of shape and detail on display would give runway milliner Stephen Jones a run for his money.
From the Coporaque district jaunty fedoras with the brim flipped up at back are sprinkled liberally with small embroidered motifs, often the same embroidery which adorns the wearer’s jacket.The Montera is a traditional hat varying region by region but often with a beaded white strap which fastens under the chin that can reveal information such as which village the woman has come from as well as her status in society. Some are fruit bowl-shaped, the interior crafted of bold red and black geometric pattern, then filled with fabric flowers. Others are tasseled circles draped onto a supportive understructure in the manner of a doily on a side table.
Adding a note of formal structure to all the technicolor soft draping is that century-old menswear staple worn by besuited gents from Charlie Chaplin to John Cleese, the ubiquitous bowler. Known as the derby here in the U.S. and the bombin in Spanish, it is said to have arrived in Peru in the 1920s when a shipment of the hats sent from Europe bound for railway workers found its way into the hands of the indigenous people instead. While the Andean ladies wear scuffed shoes or a popular sandal fashioned from recycled rubber tires, and their knit stockings are often dusty, and their wardrobe comprised of hastily knotted multi-purpose squares, these hats in contrast stand tall, erect, and appear in immaculate condition. Simple sober browns and moss models with tonal band give way to spectacular one-off pieces with extra tall crowns in pink or turquoise and featuring pleated motifs, satin trims, and unique appliqués. They’re a bold punctuation to any outfit and a surefire way to command attention striding through a bustling colorful market.
Stalls selling hats are to be found in most local markets but stacked on tables by color and shape, the headwear looks relatively generic and unremarkable. That is until it ascends onto Andean women’s heads. Then after the work of customizing with ribbons, sequins, and pom poms has been completed, those mere hats have been transformed into masterpieces.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.