Imagine hundreds and hundreds of lovely women in skirts so full they can be lifted like wings, wearing beaded floral headpieces that quiver delightfully as they dance in the sun. The women are like flowers themselves. This is the Mil Pollera, and last Saturday I had the privilege of watching my friend Soraya prepare her beautiful, twenty-something daughter, Marion, for the ritual.
I arrived at 2:30 and the ladies were already well into preparation for the parade at 4 pm. Marion’s elaborate makeup was already on. She wore cut-off jeans for modesty (shed when she later put on the petticoat and skirt) beneath the long, ruffled and heavily embroidered pollera blouse, standing patiently in her special, little yellow pollera shoes as her mother fussed with the drawstrings at the blouse’s neck, adjusting it to rest just-so on her creamy shoulders, then attaching the pompons, front and back.
That attended to, we went out to the porch where the rest of the family waited, relaxing. Her mother seated Marion, then put a pair of wonderful gold and ruby earrings on her before setting to work on her hair. After parting it in the middle, Soraya made ponytails on each side of Marion’s modern, chin-length cut, then braided and coiled them. A pair of false braids with convenient loops at the top went over the coils and Marion transformed into a traditionally coifed Panamanian girl of yore.
Next, Soraya arrayed her daughter in more real gold — antique gold bracelets and rings. Then the multiple chains of gold, each with a name, and each fastened carefully with special gold pins to best display them. Finally, gold combs were inserted in Marion’s hair. There were three of them, similar to the mantilla-veil combs of Spanish women. Once those were in place, Soraya began placing the tembleques, the beaded flowers for the headpiece. Each tembleque is mounted on a long wire hairpin which allows it to be fastened in the hair with more pins. Securing the tembleques is a fairly painful process, to judge from Marion’s winces and hisses of pain. When all was complete I asked her if they still hurt. She said no, but that together with the combs, their combined weight was not insignificant. Then she smiled and assured us that once she began dancing, she would forget about it.
Now that the top half of her costume was in place, Soraya brought out the petticoat. What a work of art! Of the many forms of luscious hand embroidery on it, the lace net is perhaps my favorite. And the method of wearing was the biggest surprise.
The petticoat opens with a placket on each hip, attached to long strings. The front strings are wrapped to the back and tied. The back strings are brought to the front and tied. Because the placket is open, the fabric does not bunch over the hips. The skirt is constructed the same way. This double opening with its front-and-back-tie method combined with the voluminous blouse is why a pollera outfit is quite the one-size-fits-all, even the significantly pregnant. Unless a wearer were truly obese, length is the chief consideration for whether a pollera costume will fit. Incredibly ingenious.
Even more wonderful, it seems to be becoming to all. Women who might otherwise be thought plain seem gorgeous in a pollera. The merely lovely become stunning, and the beautiful, breath-taking.
No wonder the women of Panama wear their polleras at every opportunity.
For some background on the festival of La Mil Pollera, please see our earlier post, Panamanian Customs: The Mil Pollera.
Here are some wonderful photos of individual tembleques.
If you would like to know more about the different polleras, Bonnie Bircher’s book, The Art of the Pollera, is an excellent place to start.