Women in Hats

22 September 2009 at 11:41 9 comments

By Suzy Marinkovich, KF9 Bolivia

We can’t get enough of them.  We love them so much that they even have their own lending team of fans and a discussion on KivaFriends.  Whether they are made of straw or soft fabric, bowler, flat-brimmed, or a tiny saucer looking thing on our borrower’s heads – we just love them.

There is an old English adage that says, “If you want to get ahead in life, you should get yourself a hat.”

I like hats, and I’ll wear one every now and again – maybe for Opening Day in Del Mar or during a long hike to beat the heat (and, of course, during San Diego Padres baseball games).  But down here, it’s an essential part of your everyday cholita’s wardrobe – it’s her piece of flair, her fashion statement, and it’s also almost always a statement about where she comes from.  Her hat may very well give away her hometown – and whether others see her as a Cochabambina or an Ayacuchana, for example.

When I saw our “Women in Hats” lending team, I was in love!  I promise not to get all deep on you, but I thought it was such a cute, simple way that cultures across the world can come together through Kiva – by celebrating even the simplest of accessories.  It also conveys why loaning on Kiva is so fun (and addictive) for us!

So, I decided to do a little light research into this hat phenomenon.  Since I arrived in Bolivia from Peru, the hat styles have definitely changed.  These ones are usually small bowler hats and I cannot for the life of me figure out how they seem to defy physics by not flying off their owner’s heads. Sometimes they are tilted off to the side, sometimes they add a solid 10 inches to a woman’s height – which I guess lends itself to the aforementioned English adage.

I began by Googling “bowler hats Bolivia” and soon found out that they’re called a “bombin” down here.  When I Googled that however, all I got were a bunch of articles on bombings (since Google was certain I made a typo) and some Wu Tang Clan lyrics about “bombin’ buildings.” I take it that bombin hats aren’t a typical Google search.  Regardless, I dug a little deeper and here’s a synopsis of what I found:

The bowler hat – or bombin – has been worn by Quechua and Aymara women in Peru and Bolivia since the 1920s, when it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers.  Rumor has it that the hats were found to be too small for their intended recipients, so they were then distributed to the locals.  For many years a factory in Italy manufactured the hats for the Bolivian market.  Now, however, they are produced internationally.  This seems to be the most popular theory of bombin origination.  (Main source: Wikipedia.org)

Another rumored and uncorroborated bombin hat theory involves an over-order of bowler hats by an enterprising salesman, who supposedly convinced the Bolivian locals that the wearing of hats would increase their fertility.  Whether that was once the belief or not, you may be relieved to know that this rumor certainly isn’t prevalent today.

Hats and more hats

To rewind and broaden our subject a little, it’s worth noting that in the aftermath of the 1781 pan-Andean rebellion against Spanish rule, colonial officials forbade the use of indigenous dress, hoping to suppress any identification with an autonomous Indian culture (Source: Lesley Gill, “Proper Women and City Pleasure: Gender, Class, and Contested Meanings in La Paz”).  I learned in Cuzco that all of the styles we see today, from women in hats, skirts, and blouses to men’s pants, came originally from the Spanish.  They saw the Andean people wearing what they considered to be odd attire: long, floor-length, and simple gowns.  It was decided that the Andeans should dress more like the peasantry attire prevalent in feudal Europe.  As a result, Andean people embraced the new styles while paying homage to their own cultures by using bright, woven colors and uniquely styled hats.  Those are what we see today and classify as uniquely South American; which they are, but it’s interesting to know where it all began.

Although detailed historical information on changes in dress throughout the 19th century is not available, we do know that during the early 20th century, urban Aymara women wore the so-called Panama hats, which were actually produced in Ecuador. These hats were subsequently replaced by the contemporary derbies sometime after World War II. The most fashionable brand—Borsaline—was produced in Italy, and even after the firm closed its Italian factory, it opened one in La Paz exclusively for the Bolivian market. (Source: Caiiavesi de Sahonero 1987)

I tip my hat to the various sources from which I drew upon to write the paragraphs above.  Please feel free to comment on this post with your own hat facts (and rumors)!

Lastly, if you find yourself drawn to lovely women in stylish hats, we can help you.  Just click here.

Sonrisas y abrazos desde Bolivia (smiles and hugs from Bolivia)!

Suzy Marinkovich is a Kiva Fellow at new Kiva partner CIDRE in Cochabamba, Bolivia, the second of her three placements.  She has a wholehearted passion for microfinance, social justice, and poverty alleviation.  Suzy is most excited to listen to the incredible stories of Kiva borrowers in South America and let them know how much they continually inspire us all. Click here to support fundraising borrowers at CIDRE!

Entry filed under: All, Americas, blogsherpa, Bolivia, CIDRE, KF9 (Kiva Fellows 9th Class), Peru. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Mexican Markets and Microentrepreneurs KF9 Kicks it off!


  • 1. Xgzikucb  |  4 July 2011 at 11:18

    heirloom christening gowns,

  • 2. 2 Day Diet Japan Lingzhi  |  29 June 2010 at 23:19

    Thanks for the nice post. I think it is useful to me……

  • 3. Unilove  |  20 October 2009 at 22:26

    As I’ve remarked beofre, I always learn something new when reading Kiva Fellows posts! Thank you ~

    Unilove aka Lisa
    Kiva Fellows fan

  • 4. Straw Hats Men  |  18 October 2009 at 01:03

    Less power and, After Clerks A?For Aids depends, So that?s all.Simple Creative Although, system? column of.Wheat pasta over Straw Hats Men, is no physical com and you.Team with >, Antonio If you.,

  • 5. Eric  |  28 September 2009 at 11:18

    I thought hats were just for weddings! Its good to get a different angle about what you are experiencing – you should be a writer!

  • 6. When Boredom Attacks /  La Vida Idealist  |  25 September 2009 at 06:12

    […] those Bolivian bowler hats the women wear.  After poking around a bit on the web, I put together a fun blog post that I posted to the Kiva Fellows blog.  It made me feel more connected to the culture I am […]

  • 7. Kate  |  24 September 2009 at 10:52

    LOVE this!

  • 8. Marianne - Stockholm, Sweden  |  22 September 2009 at 15:34

    What a delightful recflection on women, fashion, hats worn by our entrepreneurs and cultural context, Suzy!

    It made me smile 🙂
    Thank you!

    Marianne – Stockholm

  • 9. Jan & John  |  22 September 2009 at 12:59

    KivaFriends love you too, Suzy 🙂 just as much as we love hats. jan

Get Involved!

Learn more about this blog and about Kiva Fellows

Visit Kiva.org

Apply to be a Kiva Fellow

Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,348 other followers


Drawing from the Field

Kiva Blog Policy

%d bloggers like this: