The Republic of Panama is a small Spanish-speaking country in Central America. It is situated on the isthmus connecting North and South America. Before the arrival of the Europeans (especially Spanish settlers) in the 16th century, this area was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. The prominent ones were the Cueva and the Coclé, which were then largely annihilated by the Spanish colonizers during the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century, the area became occupied by the Kuna, who had previously lived in the Colombian region of Uraba before the Spanish invasion. Nowadays, the Amerindian population includes six ethnic groups in addition to the Kuna (Guna): the Bri Bri, Buglé, Emberá, Naso Tjerdi (Teribe), Ngäbe and Wounaan.
In 1821, Panama broke away from Spain and forming a union with Nueva Granada, Ecuador, and Venezuela named the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained joined, eventually becoming the Republic of Colombia. With the backing of the United States, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and it has been an independent (!) but rather troubled country since then. In 2010, the population was 65% Mestizo (mixed white, Native American), 9.2% Black/mulattoes, 6.7% White and 12.3% Native Americans. This chequered history and mixed population has led to both indigenous and Spanish/European influences on the types of traditional clothes worn in the country.
The pollera is the national dress of the women of Panama. Originally, in the 19th century, the pollera was worn by housemaids or nurses but later on it was adopted by women of every class in Panama. The pollera is not just worn in Panama, but also has been adopted by women of many other Latin American countries though with various small alterations according to country. The pollera consists of a ruffled blouse worn off the shoulders with a ruffled skirt. The ruffling of the skirt is made so that when the wearer lifts it up, the skirt looks like a peacock’s tail or a mantilla fan. The most lavish and expensive costumes are called “pollera de Gala”.
Nowadays, the pollera is not worn on a day-to-day basis but for various festivities (e.g. wedding ceremonies and folklore dancing events). Pollera are preferably hand-made and they can take several months to embroider (using various types of embroidery and appliqué techniques). There is a tremendous variety of pollera in Panama these days but traditionally it is made of fine white linen.
Panama women also wear jewellery with their polleras: golden chains and other ornaments such as earrings (zaricillos), which are usually made of gold or coral. To complete the outfits, slippers are worn that match the colour of the pollera. Ornate headdresses are also worn.
The Kuna people have kept their indigenous dress alive to some extent. The traditional clothing of Kuna women consists of hand-made blouses known as “molas” with skirts. The blouses are sewn with a reverse appliqué technique. Examples of Kuna appliqué work can be bought in German world shops (Weltladen). Kuna women also colour their faces and noses with a special paint which they prepare from achiote seeds.
The traditional outfits for men in Panama include straw hats along with white cotton shirts and trousers (see picture of gala pollera above). Funnily, the so-called Panama hat originated and is still made in Ecuador, a country with which Panama was affiliated with in the early 19th century (in the Republic of Gran Colombia).
Kuna men wear a traditional Kuna shirt (using the appliqué technique) with trousers, jeans or shorts.