Back to top

Gender and the Boundaries of Dress in Contemporary Peru

Gender and the Boundaries of Dress in Contemporary Peru

Why people wear clothes, why people make art, and why those things matter in a war-torn land.

Series: Louann Atkins Temple Women and Culture Endowment, Book Six

May 2004
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
384 pages | 6 x 9 | 36 b&w illus., 3 line drawings, 2 maps |

Set in Arequipa during Peru's recent years of crisis, this ethnography reveals how dress creates gendered bodies. It explores why people wear clothes, why people make art, and why those things matter in a war-torn land. Blenda Femenías argues that women's clothes are key symbols of gender identity and resistance to racism.

Moving between metropolitan Arequipa and rural Caylloma Province, the central characters are the Quechua- and Spanish-speaking maize farmers and alpaca herders of the Colca Valley. Their identification as Indians, whites, and mestizos emerges through locally produced garments called bordados. Because the artists who create these beautiful objects are also producers who carve an economic foothold, family workshops are vital in a nation where jobs are as scarce as peace. But ambiguity permeates all practices shaping bordados' significance. Femenías traces contemporary political and ritual applications, not only Caylloma's long-standing and violent ethnic conflicts, to the historical importance of cloth since Inca times.

This is the only book about expressive culture in an Andean nation that centers on gender. In this feminist contribution to ethnography, based on twenty years' experience with Peru, including two years of intensive fieldwork, Femenías reflects on the ways gender shapes relationships among subjects, research, and representation.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. False Borders, Embroidered Lives
  • 1. Traveling
  • 2. Fabricating Ethnic Frontiers: Identity in a Region at the Crossroads
  • 3. Clothing the Body: Visual Domain and Cultural Process
  • 4. Addressing History: Representation and the Embodiment of Memory
  • 5. Dancing in Disguise: Transvestism and Festivals as Performance
  • 6. Marching and Meaning: Ethnic Symbols and Gendered Demonstrations
  • 7. Making Difference: Gender and Production in a Workshop System
  • 8. Trading Places: Exchange, Identity, and the Commoditization of Cloth
  • Conclusion. Why Women Wear Polleras
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Blenda B. Femenías is a Research Associate at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.


Ambulantes flood the streets of downtown Arequipa. Fanning out from the commercial hub of San Camilo market, these independent vendors stake out tiny patches of pavement. Throughout the center of this city of one million, near plaza and bus stop and railroad station, no matter which way you turn, their boxes, bags, stands, carts, cloths, and baskets jumble together in a frenzied kaleidoscope of things. Here shoppers can find anything; here thieves prey on the careless. From basic foodstuffs to imported commodities, commerce is largely informal, an affair of the streets or bazaars tucked into rickety buildings. On sites where centuries-old stone structures have been demolished in the name of progress, optimistic developers erect elegant new shopping centers. Few retailers can afford the high rents, so the centers resemble ghost towns. Few consumers can afford the imported luxury goods, saddled with 30 percent duties, sold there. The ambulantes are the ones who provide the desired goods at affordable prices. Most vendors are recent migrants from rural communities throughout southern Peru; long-term residents of Arequipa lump them together as "Indians" and denounce them as unwelcome invaders.


In Maca, a village of 1,500 one hundred miles away, women load baskets of fruit onto overcrowded buses. A thirst-quenching snack, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (tuna) tastes like kiwi crossed with honeydew. When the tuna fruit is fully ripe in February (midsummer in Peru), dozens of women leave their villages to sell it in Arequipa. Arriving in the metropolis, they claim places amidst the other sidewalk vendors. Prickly pears grow in Arequipa as well, but Maca is known for its delicious tuna. Maca and other villages in Caylloma Province are also known for their women's stylish clothes, called bordados (embroideries) or polleras (skirts), adorned with intricate multicolored motifs embroidered on sewing machines (Figure 1). Attracted by these markers of Caylloma, buyers stop to buy the fruit.


Today I pick a careful path through the melee that is downtown Arequipa. The city is highly centralized, so most errands must be done downtown. For the last few months, since I was almost robbed when a team of four thieves surrounded me, I have avoided this district. But I must travel to Chivay, the capital of Caylloma, and I can buy the ticket only at the bus company office.


I will visit Caylloma to continue fieldwork on a project addressing identity formation through daily life experience in several villages near Maca. Caylloma's 39,000 residents, mostly farmers and herders, are clustered in fifteen villages in the Colca River Valley. My investigation concerns the ways they use objects to represent and construct their identities as women, men, and Cayllominos (people from Caylloma). Gender and ethnicity, I believe, are the most powerful forces shaping identity as more people migrate to Arequipa and as Caylloma's regional and national importance fluctuates. Bordados provide an ideal focal point because women wear them, but both men and women make and sell these distinctive emblems. Bordados literally means "embroideries" in Spanish, and polleras means "skirts," but the entire ensemble of blouse, vest, jacket, skirts, and hat is usually referred to by either term interchangeably.


On my way to the bus company, I see a woman selling tuna fruits on a crowded corner. The colors and forms of her bordados indicate that she hails from a rural Caylloma village. On a hot February afternoon, almost 80°F, she wears a blouse and a jacket, both long-sleeved, with several ankle-length skirts that flow around her onto the sidewalk as she sits on a tiny stool. Another marker is her hat, made of tan felt with a wide embroidered brim and plain crown. It narrows the range of her origin to two or three communities. The basket of tuna beside her provides another clue that she is a Maqueña (woman from Maca). Stopping to chat, I buy a few fruits, three for the equivalent of about ten cents U.S. As she peels and passes them to me, we discuss the current state of affairs.


She confirms that she is from Maca. Things are very hard back home in this second year of drought. Corn and barley--#151;the standard subsistence crops--#151;are failing; in fact, only tuna is doing well, as cactus requires no watering. Thousands of llamas and alpacas are dying for lack of pasture. I decide to stay and converse longer, postponing my errand for a while. Fieldwork is where you find it. Also, Maca is a special case; it suffered a serious earthquake the previous year, so I usually ask Maqueños about the village's recovery. And perhaps this vendor will want to talk about her bordados . I tell her my name, but she has no time to tell me hers.


"¡Rochabús!" (Water cannon!) A commotion erupts. Amidst the general hue and cry, a wave of vendors and buyers rushes frantically toward us, the vendors clutching bundles to their chests.


Hide! Where? Don't get drenched, I think at once. An everyday occurrence, this cry spells disaster nonetheless. I spring into a store before the clerk can shut the door. Outside appears a dreaded but familiar sight. A truck with a tall metal turret rounds the corner, spraying water at high pressure on everyone in its path. The ambulantes scramble to pick up their small stocks; some drop their goods or stumble. The Maqueña scoops up her baskets, tucks them into a carrying cloth, slings it over one shoulder, and flees.


The ambulantes have no choice but to run. It is doubtful that any store owner would let them shelter inside, as the competitive enmity between stores and hawkers runs deep. My presence in the store goes unquestioned. The clerk slams down a solid metal door. Safe inside, we cannot see out but hear water drum against the door. When all is silent, he raises it. Outside, not a vendor is in sight. The sidewalks are drenched, and the torrents gushing through the streets reek of kerosene.


Mayor Cáceres of Arequipa has made good his word. He has declared war on the ambulantes. The water cannon is one of his most prized contributions to modernizing Arequipa. Luis Cáceres's commitment to eradicating the ambulantes has been a cornerstone of his governing policy. Not only do they compete against legitimate businesses, he maintains, they clog the streets and detract from the clean, safe image that the "White City"--#151;as Arequipa is nicknamed--#151;has long enjoyed. "I will wash the streets clean of ambulantes!" he declared. Cáceres's evangelical fervor did not square up with the questionable ethics of the profligate squandering of water during the century's worst drought. Inspired by Lima and Chile, where tanks are crowd-control weapons, Cáceres bought one for Arequipa. While waiting for the tank to arrive, he deployed a makeshift truck. For the first few weeks the rochabús patrolled the city streets shooting plain water. It did no good. The ambulantes got wet, ran away, and came right back. Accelerating the aggression, the mayor had the water dyed red so it would stain as well as soak their merchandise, again to no avail. Now he has escalated again by mixing the water with kerosene. Should this fail to clear the streets, he threatens, he will mix it with pesticide to ruin the merchandise--#151;the vendors' health be damned.


All this the woman from Maca risks to sell cactus fruits three for a dime. To do so she wears an outfit that cost more than a hundred dollars.


Real life in Peru was hard and scary. When I began fieldwork, political and economic tensions had strained the nation for more than a decade. These were years of civil war. Power struggles between the state and insurgent groups, including the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso, SL), were enacted daily on the bodies of the powerless.5 Combining military force and neoliberal reform, President Alberto Fujimori's government struggled to retain control. From 1991 to 1993, I lived in urban Arequipa and rural Caylloma Province, constantly traveling those hundred miles between city and country. Danger was on everyone's mind. Remarkably, Arequipa was spared the major war activities that decimated Ayacucho and central Peru, ravaged the eastern jungle, and severely depopulated the Puno countryside. Because Arequipa is Peru's second largest city--#151;after Lima, the capital--#151;its continued security became a national priority. Beginning in 1990, army troops were stationed in Arequipa's highlands; soldiers patrolled the villages and surrounding mountains. The national government declared a "state of emergency," placing Caylloma and several neighboring provinces under military occupation (Figure 2). Because Arequipa seemed safe, it became a magnet for refugees from all over southern Peru. Nevertheless, Mayor Cáceres's little local war against the ambulantes echoed the larger national war. The problems the Maca vendor faced were Arequipa's daily fare: poverty, unemployment, petty crime, racism, and class struggle.


Some days the war came closer. In the Plaza de Armas, Arequipa's main square, police teargassed schoolteachers demonstrating during their union's six-month-long strike. Two national insurgent groups were operating in Arequipa: a cell of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, MRTA) was uncovered in the university, and a local intellectual was detained by police as a suspected Sendero sympathizer.6 Even in Arequipa, the climate of terror and the ubiquity of civil war were constant companions. Unsettling thoughts and unspoken threats were deep rivers indeed. One scarcely needed to verbalize them.


It was hard to do research in this climate. As a graduate student in the United States, I had planned to explore the "symbolic economy": examining the material dimensions of objects to discover how they communicate abstract ideas and affect cultural and economic values. Once in Peru, I found that the harsh realities of war made questions of meaning even more urgent and compelling. In particular, I became convinced that bordados are a uniquely powerful kind of clothes--#151;emblems of gender and ethnicity that Cayllominos use in every phase of the life experience and have used for decades. To explore Cayllomino clothing use, production, and exchange, I needed to understand both the rural and the urban situations which they constantly negotiate. This kept me on the go.


It was hard to get to know Arequipa. Setting out every day from Umacollo, my middle-class neighborhood, following roads leading away from the central Chili River Valley, I traced the bulging contours of a city racked by growth. In 1540 Spaniards plotted a town along the Chili's fertile banks to accommodate a few hundred colonists and pull together the dispersed indigenous settlements. Now almost a million souls call the mushrooming metropolis home, testing the limits of the oasis's powers to provide. Bus service reached only so far; even in the city, I had to walk a lot. Almost daily I took half-hour bus rides to Alto Cayma and La Tomilla, established neighborhoods (urbanizaciones) where migrants from Caylloma cluster (Figure 3). I made periodic sojourns to new shantytowns (pueblos jóvenes) in the barren foothills of Misti Volcano; there were only two buses a day, and from the last stop I walked another hour. Tromping up dusty hills and across rocky ravines; circulating among rich and poor neighborhoods, the university, the art school, markets, and meetings of the clubs; getting to know many different Arequipas, I too became a sort of ambulante.


It was harder for the Caylloma-based travelers and migrants to grapple with all those Arequipas. While some had moved permanently from Caylloma to new Arequipa homes, others came to the city often to do business, and still others visited only once a year. Some had lived in the city for almost their whole lives, so their natal province was a dim memory of mountains, cornfields, and alpaca herds. The newly arrived, bound and determined to make a living, hoped that one of the city's large industries--#151;milk-canning plant, brewery, and textile factories--#151;or the state bureaucracy would hire them. Meanwhile, they sewed blouses, sold contraband radios, raised rabbits, or brought cactus fruit or corn to sell--#151;whatever it took to put food on the table as prices skyrocketed through structural adjustment programs. Their Caylloma identity, which helped them parlay connections with other migrants into multiple social networks, was crucial to their survival.


It was hard to do my project. Sometimes it seemed hard just to explain it. What is your research about? "La mujer" (women), "la artesanía" (crafts), or, if I knew a person better, "el poder" (power), I would reply. Launching into my well-rehearsed rap, I seldom got far, for people interrupted with their opinions. It proved more interesting to hear their interpretations than to explain my project. Many people encouraged me to learn about Caylloma lifeways or offered sympathetic anecdotes about their own rural living experiences. Others, despite good intentions, provided erroneous "facts" about bordados and the people who wore them. All and sundry freely advised me on my proper role. Some urban elites suggested that I develop and market crafts for the improvement of the poor. Others, assuming I was with a development agency, told me not to waste my time trying to help "those Indians," because they were too lazy to work. At first, my reactions to similar comments--#151;usually paternalistic but sometimes blatantly racist, even genocidal--#151;embroiled me in many arguments. Eventually, I got better at biting my tongue, but it always took effort not to get riled. I had to remind myself constantly that discussion would be futile and that I was a foreigner and a guest, in potential danger.


In April 1992 we had a coup. President Alberto Fujimori staged an autogolpe (self-inflicted coup): he suspended civil liberties, dissolved the national Congress and Supreme Court, and declared the Constitution null and void. In imposing autocratic rule, he disrupted the fragile democratic process through which Alan García Pérez had passed him the reins of government not even two years earlier. Fujimori's election had confounded the pundits, who failed to anticipate that this Japanese-Peruvian upstart would steal the thunder of the white elite favorite, Mario Vargas Llosa, originally from Arequipa, as well as end the domination of García's party, APRA (Alianza Popular Revolucionario Americano). The autogolpe seemed but one more phase in learning to expect the unexpected.


The coup shook me up. I had no idea what would happen. I kept working in Arequipa rather than travel to Chivay. In the evenings, I, like the rest of the country, was glued to the television news. I read all the newspapers and magazines; I listened to endless rumors and gossip. What next? Would the country be rocked by waves of increasing violence? Would Peru become the next Cambodia? In fact, the scope of the war did not escalate, but the violence, although less visible, became more insidious and deeply ingrained. Fed up with war and corruption, many Peruvians demanded harsh solutions to complex problems. Fujimori's strong hand was approved in many sectors, but his blatant violations of civil rights and due process were vigorously protested in others. Demonstrations of popular support alternated with widespread debate about the military's role in the coup. Was Fujimori a dictator or a puppet?


My own daily routine was remarkably uneventful. I kept right on doing fieldwork. With only four months remaining of my eighteen-month research period, I needed to accelerate in the homestretch. My colleague, Flora Cutipa, and I met hundreds of Cayllomino migrants, primarily in markets, Mothers' Clubs, and the Caylloma Provincial Association. Many of these migrants were women, and almost all of them were poor. More often than I would have predicted, they told me of their hardships. Women recounted the complicated juggling acts of their lives: holding down two jobs, staffing the soup kitchens of a women's group, organizing locally to get electricity in their urbanización, coordinating schedules with their husbands, and, all too often, enduring domestic abuse in order to protect their children and keep the family together.


In Cayllominos' lives, even in the city, artistic production and handwork were conspicuously central. When I talked about "crafts" or knitted, people showed me textiles old and new. Cherished, woven heirlooms from Caylloma helped them feel at home in the city. Bordados had particular currency in contemporary urban life. Women donned those clothes to sell produce like tuna fruit, to join with other migrants in social clubs and festivals, and to engage in political activism on behalf of Cayllominos. In makeshift shops set up in houses that were no more than stacks of rough volcanic blocks, embroidery artisans made beautiful things and patiently explained their work to me. City workshops were few, however, compared to the number in Caylloma. My investigation of production and exchange was centered in Chivay, a market town of five thousand people. I spent considerable time there, interacting with more than one hundred artisans who labored in about fifty embroidery workshops.


About a month after the autogolpe, a violent incident occurred in Caylloma. Late one night, a bomb ripped open the Armed Forces Recruiting Office in downtown Chivay. No one was injured or killed; two buildings were damaged. The incident proved isolated. The bombing was neither claimed by Sendero nor accompanied by pro-Sendero graffiti. I was in Arequipa and, after I heard, postponed a scheduled trip to Chivay. Two weeks later I went. A few people willingly discussed the bombing, but I learned little beyond the fact that no one was ever arrested.


During that week I walked around Chivay as usual, focusing on a particular research task or just going to grab lunch in a restaurant. Typically, I spent several hours each day with artisans in a workshop, where they assembled the multicolored garments and embroidered birds and flowers on them. About forty workshops are clustered in the market, and several others are scattered around the side streets. Going anywhere in town, I would invariably pass at least one. As I walked by, the whir and clunk of treadle sewing machines poured out of open doors. Often I poked my head inside to greet a friend. Such was the rhythm of daily life, the well-worn path of fieldwork.


Every day I had to pass the bombed-out recruiting office, just two blocks from my house. The door blown off its hinges had been replaced by the time I reached Chivay. The damaged roof of the jail behind it had not. Twisted edges of corrugated metal spiraled skyward and trailed off like thin tongues of flame. The first time I walked past, I gawked at the grotesque sight. No one else even glanced that way.


Someone was out of touch with reality. But who? Was it me, intently tracing every step it took to make and sell bordados? Was it the Cayllominos, dedicating dozens of hours a week to embroidering beautiful clothes? After a bomb went off one night, how could people sew hummingbirds the next day? To what lengths would they go to put the war out of their minds? How could the creative process matter amidst violent conflicts? In the quagmire of a civil war, what did a "symbolic economy" mean?


Beyond the doubts that bedevil every large project, my doubts were honed by the war that surrounded me and affected the lives of people with whom I worked and lived. Sally Ness, an anthropologist studying a popular dance-drama in the Philippines during troubled times, wondered about the value of analyzing what people constantly told her was a "meaningless event" (Ness 1992:24-25). And embroidery? Likewise, I wondered about the value of something so decorative, so superficial, and perhaps so frivolous. Resisting the temptation to dismiss embroidery as an excessively trivial occupation, I found the serious questions buried deep within my doubts. Who was trivializing this activity? And why?


Trying to reconcile bombing with embroidering made me stop, step back from the details, and reconsider what I knew about bordados and their roles in Cayllominos' lives. That is how I came to view them as a genre, a unified form of cultural expression. Now I could understand how artisans were encoding important messages. Their work has been trivialized because they employ "a form, mode, or genre that the dominant culture considers unimportant, innocuous, or irrelevant" (Radner and Lanser 1993:19), and thus apparently weaken the importance of the message that form carries. Yet when a nonthreatening form is used, its message or transcript can be more meaningful to its creators and users, precisely because it is discounted by, or hidden from, the dominant culture (Scott 1990). Bordados are this kind of creative work. The gendered and ethnic messages they encode, while threatening in other contexts, may seem trivial because of the medium. Historically, embroidery has frequently been "characterized as mindless, decorative and delicate; like the icing on the cake, good to look at, adding taste and status, but devoid of significant content" (Parker 1986:6). In this medium in particular, meaning is all too often disguised or obscured (ibid.:13).


"Symbolic economy," far from being trivial, proved to be a more useful concept than I anticipated. It acquired new resonance and depth in Peru at war. My analysis of "symbolism" came to center on one symbolic domain, bordados , in its political and economic contexts, both contemporary and historical. Bordados were an important subject because gendered ideologies dominated their symbolism. This is the case not only because women wear them, but because all clothes are often glossed as female. At least in western society, fashion and dress form a category so closely associated with the feminine that "male fashion" seems an oxymoron (Hollander 1994:10-11). Bordados' decorative surface apparently intensifies their female associations because embroidery is a feminine category (Parker 1986). But would these gendered associations hold in Caylloma, where men as well as women make, and even sometimes wear, bordados ?


The "economy" side of the symbolic economy concept had also troubled me; it seemed too grand a term to describe the hardscrabble existence of twenty-two million struggling souls. Although subsistence agriculture plays a crucial role for rural Peruvians, it coexists with capitalist extraction, multinational development, and a vast informal sector. But "subsistence" and every other label I applied to economic activity called into question the symbolic dimensions of economy. Rethinking "economy" preceded understanding the workshop organization of bordado production, which does not set neatly within any single economic system. While the men, women, and sometimes children who make embroidered clothes are workers, with a stake in the financial outcome of their labors, they are often kin who give as well as sell their products.


Contradictory values and categorizations, I came to see, were not extraneous appendages to cut off the body of the project nor were they distractions to ignore. These political issues were precisely the substance of the problem. The symbolic and the economic, the art and the work, the urban and the rural--#151;these divisions were false borders that did not represent the world I saw around me. The ambiguity of these emblems, especially the gendered and ethnic concepts they embody, contains the irreducible tensions in which their value lies. Questions of meaning are questions of power. Objects do not float detached from cultural values, but acquire their meanings as the products of human creativity and labor. The bordados themselves contain the stories of the people who wear them and the artists who create them. They hold embroidered lives.


By 1991, when I went to live in Peru, I had already visited several times. Although life during wartime would be hard, the everyday dangers of urban life should come as no surprise. For many years I lived in Washington, D.C., where urban street crime was familiar fare. Military occupation, with U.S. army tanks patrolling the streets, figured in my adolescent rites of passage during the Vietnam War. Years in safe, sane Wisconsin had dulled my instincts, but when I moved to Peru, my street smarts snapped back sharper than ever. It was only prudent to stay alert on the street, where water cannons rumbled along, thieves flashed razors, and police lobbed tear gas.


What threw me was different: Terror, not terrorism per se. Violence, not the violent acts themselves. The expectation, normalizing, and routinizing of violence--#151;that was terror. Failure to anticipate a violent event could lead to inconvenience, such as drenching by the water cannon, or to catastrophe. In fleeing the rochabús, the ambulantes and I momentarily shared a problem. That day, I found safety. None of us was immune, however, to random, capricious chance. Anticipating violence could not prevent it. Victims of the war were in the wrong place, trapped inside a building that was bombed or caught in the crossfire of a police sweep. Assassinations, massacres, and disappearances claimed the lion's share of media attention and international human rights outrage. But the climate of terror was worse. Fostered by the small daily violence of routine hostile encounters such as the water cannon's sorties, this climate inured the soul to acts of violence and enabled the acts to multiply.


War is not what you think it is unless you have lived in it. Daily life goes on, but it takes unexpected turns. Terror feeds into an escalating spiral of violence, but it also brings alienation, the breakdown of civil society, and the paralysis of anomie. Even so, the climate of violence sparks people to create as well as to destroy. What does it take to galvanize people into action? What kinds of acts are sane in an atmosphere of lunacy? Whence springs the energy to create and stave off the destruction?


In Peru during the years of crisis, loss of faith in action and hopeless despair were the silent accomplices to the fiery rage of war. All around me, however, people interrogated both violence and passivity. Gender identity was a vital factor shaping how women and men deployed cultural forms to navigate the suspect terrain their daily lives occupied. And racial heritage and ethnic pride played crucial roles in helping migrants from rural communities search for a modicum of security and some kind of livable space (Turino 1993:3). With the bombs' destruction, explosions of another kind surged forth. Art, craft, literature, theater, music, festivals--#151;all kinds of popular cultural expressions multiplied and regenerated. More than a painting, in the way of a song, Caylloma bordados are such an expression. "Eruptions of creativity within cultural performances comment upon, just as they often reformulate, the dilemmas a society faces at a particular historical moment," observed Rosaldo, Lavie, and Narayan (1993:6). Against the normalization of violence, continuing daily life was the quintessence of creativity in action. That is how Peruvians struggled with those dilemmas. Creativity during crisis, the fraying and mending of the fabric of culture, and the embodied power of gender and ethnicity in such troubled times are issues with which I grapple in this book.


Ambiguous Emblems


When I'm in Arequipa and I see a lady in embroidered clothes, I always greet her. She's from my land, she's my compatriot. . . .

Leonardo Mejía (Interview, Chivay, February 1992)


When the Maca fruit vendor set out for Arequipa, she could assume that Arequipeños would identify her with Caylloma, and that dressing in polleras would boost sales. When Leonardo Mejía walked through the streets of Arequipa, he could be sure that a woman in bordados was his paisana (compatriot). For Mejía as a Cayllomino, even far from his hometown of Coporaque, embroidered garments would signal that the woman wearing them was from the same land (tierra), prompting him to greet her. For him as an experienced embroidery artisan, the bordados would have personal and professional meaning. A closer look would determine if he himself had made them. Bordados inspire recognition, but they also circulate in other spheres of meaning.


On the streets of Arequipa, I sometimes met and greeted women in beautiful, luxurious bordados. In Caylloma I was surrounded by them. But there were no published studies that explained why this was so: no studies centering on bordados , any type of Cayllomino textiles, or gender in Caylloma. In the sizeable literature on Caylloma, scholars made only a cursory mention of women's dress, and no one addressed the economic importance of the workshops. Convinced that bordados constituted a genre, I soon realized that they should occupy the center of my study of gender.


This ethnography of the clothed body is the first book to analyze a Peruvian creative domain primarily through the lens of gender. One central theme is that unequal power relations make, rather than reflect, gendered and ethnic difference. Caylloma bordados are the primary domain of representation through which I explore that theme. These ambiguous emblems are simultaneously gendered symbols, ethnic markers, class statements, emblems of resistance to racism, works of art, and elements in production and exchange practices. Bordados mark place: they are the exclusive products of the Peruvian nation, the Arequipa region, the province of Caylloma, the valley of the Colca River, and a few villages. Bordados mark time: points in personal life courses, annual calendars, and historical epochs. They are contemporary allegories of vibrant traditions based in the past, but their characteristic embroidery originated no earlier than the 1930s. Their power as key symbols inheres not only in their precision as markers but in their very ambiguity.


Every day several thousand Cayllominas wear bordados , and during her lifetime, each woman will spend several thousand dollars on elaborate outfits. Though a modestly priced complete ensemble may cost less than $100, one spectacular skirt may cost three times that amount. Women take pride in dressing well, and men and women artisans take pride in making the intricate work skillfully. But the burden of representation is unevenly gendered, as different values, tasks, and images are assigned to female and male--#151;both actual persons and conceptual categories. Although in daily life only Caylloma women wear bordados , on numerous ritual occasions men wear them. In these contradictions lies the ambiguity of bordados as gendered emblems. In contrast to Cayllominos' pride, national society marginalizes people who dress in bordados , and elites denigrate these symbols of the "Indian." In this lies their ambiguity as ethnic emblems. Women in polleras are seldom well-to-do, yet they spend considerable sums to purchase the locally made garments. In this lies their ambiguity as class emblems.


In the hierarchical, patriarchal society of contemporary Peru, indigenous women are often painted as powerless and invisible. At the same time, they are exalted as emblems of ethnicity, motherhood, and beauty. Forced to absorb the burden of racist and domestic violence, they are also charged with the embodiment of moral and aesthetic values. Why do women's bodies carry such a heavy physical and symbolic weight? Why do women embellish their appearance, attracting the eyes of others to their bodies? In a modern nation that censures "Indian" appearance, why do ethnic traditions remain vital? Embroidery production flourishes in family workshops throughout Caylloma. In economically depressed times, why do artisans make bordados? If the people are so poor, why do they dress so fancy? Why do women wear polleras?


These questions stare ambiguity in the face rather than shy away from it. To answer them, I analyze representation primarily as a productive practice. Employing a practice-centered approach (Bourdieu 1977), I privilege the process of clothing the body as a performative realm in which people represent their identities. "Clothing" is an active verb, a process. Because human actions simultaneously construct and express identity, clothes do not merely display or reflect an identity formed through other processes. Rather, wearing garments produces persons. In Caylloma, this identity-formation process is linked in myriad ways to the garment-production process. Making clothes also produces persons.


Dancing with Cayllominos in festivals, harvesting in the fields, putting on my own polleras--#151;all these practices led me to understand that symbolism is more material than abstract. Identity is embodied, and bordados incorporate meanings into gendered bodies. People dress together as they act together in communities of practice. Wearing bordados transforms exterior pressures, yielding an internalized, cultural sense of the person. While centered in the individual, this sense derives meaning, and ultimately power, from the person's connections to larger groups. Clothes are a primary means of making these connections.


Sewing with Cayllominos in workshops, buying fabric in Chivay market, negotiating the price of a hat--#151;other practices attested that the producing and marketing of clothes are also important representational practices. Bordados are commodities. About 150 specialists in eighty workshops make embroidered clothes. On an average day, ten thousand women may wear them and hundreds of people may buy them from the artisans or merchants. Bordados are expensive. A luxurious set can cost $500, whereas a set of industrially manufactured "western" clothes can be had for $20. Bordados are investments. As symbolic and economic capital (see Bourdieu 1977:179-180), they bring prestige and renown. The makers strive to market expensive goods and to increase the value of their work; the wearers don, display, and treasure their finest polleras for years.


Even casual observers are fascinated by the beauty and technical complexity of Andean textiles. Yet two stereotypes thoroughly dominate popular thought and influence scholarship (Femenías 1987). The first is that women make them at home for their families; the second, that women weave them by hand on "frame" or "backstrap" looms. Neither is true of bordados. They are made in workshops, sewn and embroidered on treadle machines. My focus on bordados pushes us out of the stereotypes to encompass workshop-produced, machine embroidery. The importance of the workshop system centered in Chivay extends beyond Caylloma, as it echoes the petty commodity system in medium-size towns throughout Peru, a vital part of the national economy. This local phenomenon, then, also compels us to confront the magnitude and variety of production and exchange systems, previously under-represented, that yield Andean textiles and occupy Andean people.


Cayllominos, especially women, do weave fine textiles, which they use and sell. Caylloma's documented, five-century association with cloth was one reason I chose to do research there. Alpacas abound in Caylloma; their fiber is highly prized. During the "wool boom" of the late nineteenth through early twentieth century, power struggles pivoting on cloth and fiber linked southern Peru to global markets. National and foreign schemes to extract resources and introduce commodities expanded exponentially. As alpaca went out, foreign materials came in. Even as Cayllominos resisted outside authority and racial domination, they appropriated new materials, technologies, ideologies, and productive strategies--#151;and turned them into bordados.


Delving into the genesis of bordados offers many insights into Caylloma's fluctuating importance in Peruvian ideology and political economy. These oscillations, in turn, prove significant in understanding how and why bordados came to be so misunderstood. Confronting the inaccuracy of the prevailing assumptions raises serious questions about value as a political system. To understand the power embodied in polleras, we must address how people produce and use objects of economic and cultural value (Appadurai 1986; Myers, ed. 2001; Phillips and Steiner, eds. 1999). Throughout this book, I analyze the politics of value primarily through the close association between gender and cloth/clothes, and secondarily, between ethnicity and cloth/clothes. I also analyze gender and ethnicity separately and uncover how they are mutually dependent.


I maintain that to ascertain norms of representation through dress, whether gendered or ethnic, we need to identify what people wear on a daily basis and how that fits with other quotidian aspects of identity formation. We also need to examine how dress for special occasions and rituals differs from that for quotidian ones, how these occasions correspond to points in the life course, and how Cayllominos use such events instrumentally. This attention to practice enables us to understand how ideologies that characterize particular activities as male or female are embodied, reproduced, and changed.


My first argument regarding gender is that bordados mark gender identity because they are worn almost exclusively by women. Within all Cayllomino ethnic groups and classes, the clear gendered marking in dress generally means that women wear skirts and men wear pants; unisex and unmarked clothes are uncommon. The gendered marking in bordados specifically also means that women's bodies are the focus of ethnic differentiation through dress, while men's bodies rarely are. In concrete terms, most Cayllominas who wear polleras are farmers and herders. As they work in the fields, layers of clothes envelop them from neck to ankle. Their long full skirts blaze with hummingbirds and fuchsia blossoms. But the men working alongside them look drab in monochrome jeans and shirts. Because men have no daily dress that comparably expresses ethnic difference, their quotidian self-representation is qualitatively different. There are, significantly, several exceptions to the decorated, skirt/female: unadorned, pants/male norm. In particular, men wear women's skirts in rituals. I attend closely to the effects and meanings of such apparent subversions of conventional gender norms.


A second premise undergirds my analysis of the gender-cloth/clothes association: bordados are gendered work. A strong gendered division of labor structures the bordado system, although almost equal numbers of women and men participate, often side by side, in embroidery production and exchange. Even as I contend that ideologies of female domesticity significantly constrain women, I also insist that such assumptions facilitate empowerment. Understanding gendered work requires attention to creativity, ownership, control over resources, control over labor, and kinship. Men frequently privilege their roles as artists, workshop heads, and workers. Women tend to underplay or deny these roles, sometimes saying they do not work but just help their families. Profiles of individual embroiderers, mostly men, whose work is highly esteemed for aesthetics persuaded me that gender strongly affects artistic aspiration and achievement. Here, too, exceptions to gendered norms matter. Female leaders in the bordados business, for example, merit scrutiny for the ways they parlay home-based activities into outside income-generating opportunities.


To explore the ethnicity-cloth/clothes association, I work from the premise that ethnicity is primarily a problem of relational identities. Again emphasizing the performative dimensions of everyday life, I contend that ethnic groups are basically communities constituted through "ethnic practices" (Bentley 1987). Analyzing how similar actions draw differently positioned subjects together also requires analyzing how those actions influence ideologies; they do both as they establish, confirm, and test boundaries between groups. This approach rejects the idea that ethnic groups are primarily sets of people with common interests indicated by common markers, because treating those attributes as fixed implies that culture is static. Instead, I examine why and how particular markers become associated with ethnicity as well as the consequences of creating and reinforcing those associations.


Among the ways that Peruvians form and characterize identity, I focus on matters of Indian identity. I question why others identify Indians through association with "handmade" crafts, especially cloth, and with "costume." More broadly, I inquire why nonindustrial, premodern lifeways and technologies are such common markers of ethnic and racial difference. The categories of "Indian" (indio, indígena), "white" (blanco), and "mixed" (mestizo) still dominate the complex system of race, ethnicity, and class that operates in today's Peru. Many Peruvians trace their heritage to ancestors who inhabited the land before Spaniards arrived. Their names for themselves include references to their contemporary community of origin and pre-Columbian polities. They rarely claim to be Indians. In Peru, it is always the Other who is native.


My analysis further depends on disentangling race and locality as integral, but incompatible, components of ethnicity. Because people who do not wear "handmade" clothes widely believe that those who do are Indians and live in rural areas, especially the mountains, they characterize all polleras as fundamentally the same. Yet Cayllominos distinguish sharply between styles made in different parts of the province, using precise markers to identify locations only a few miles apart. Examining the relationship between use of generalized, "ethnic" dress and the variant characterizing a specific location is key to understanding how dress is maneuvered for political unity and division. Primary among polleras' explicitly political arenas are women's organizations, in which female political leaders appear in bordados. By focusing on such public expressions, we see how ethnic identification can help women gain power, so elusive in a country where official channels of power, especially public office, are rarely open to women.


Furthermore, I consider craft production as a vehicle for both genders, but especially men, to gain prestige and even fame, and I inquire how this mobility may translate into broader advantage and power. Artisans play important roles beyond Caylloma in promoting a positive image of their community, but they are rewarded with success only within the narrowly demarcated realm of folklore--#151;a category that gained currency along with the rise of the modern nation.


Unraveling bordados ' multiple meanings makes clear how markers of Indian identity, no matter how beautiful and exalted, are circumscribed by the racism in everyday life, which subordinates people identified as indigenous by linking them to nature, tradition, and the past. When not outright ignored, bordados have been dismissed as domestic crafts and maligned or romanticized as archaic holdouts against the onslaught of modern capitalism. My research strongly suggests otherwise. Neither anachronistic nor unthinkingly "handed down," Caylloma traditional dress stands firm as the paradigm of all traditions: profoundly contemporary and re-invented in each new generation. As garments that are simultaneously modern and traditional, bordados exemplify the contradictory effects and desires of Peruvian society. Confronting the connections between creativity and ethnicity played out in this commonly trivialized domain compounded my awareness of the ambiguities surrounding gender, ethnicity, cloth, and embroidery.


After two years of intensive research on Caylloma and its bordados , I began to write this book. As I wrote, repeating the word "embroidery" so frequently became tiresome. The thesaurus yielded only one literal synonym: "needlework." But M. Roget obliged with other synonyms for "embroider": "ornament," "embellish," "disguise," "pervert," "distort," "misrepresent," and "falsify." This was hardly reassuring. Here embroidery was labeled not merely superficial, but actually untrue. One embroiders on the truth. Over the course of my research, as I learned how much bordados meant, my concerns about triviality had diminished. Now a new worry surfaced. Even if my study of embroidered clothes proved substantial, would it, like embroidery itself, distort the substance it embellished? No. It could not be. For people who make and use the clothes, embroidery is not superficial. But because it is creative, it is embellishment, and because it expresses ideas and interpretations, it is a kind of representation. Thus, embroidery has the capacity to misrepresent and to falsify but also to provide a model for the broader creative processes of everyday life and a metaphor for creativity. And this book about embroidery is an ethnography--#151;the product of one person's research in one time and place--#151;so it can do those things as well.


The bordados of Caylloma, the primary subject of this study, are a kind of cultural production that often has been observed, collected, gazed at, and recorded, but seldom analyzed. The subject of this study is, however, also an object. As a thing charged with meaning, the garment condenses signification; it illuminates rather than obscures the milieu in which it is inserted and from which it derives and departs. In one sense, I retain an old-fashioned focus on the object, considering its concrete physical properties to be meaningful and not arbitrary. But in another sense, that focus dissolves as I analyze the object as simultaneous latency and actualization. The object is the thing in the process of becoming as well as the thing that is. We must consider both product and process if we are to understand the ambiguities of gender and representation in Caylloma, and why Caylloma matters in the broader scheme of things.


The Garment of Culture: Theoretical Considerations of Gender, Practice, and Performance


But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that.

Nora Zeale Hurston (1990 [1935]:1)


The gendered and ethnic ambiguities of one kind of dress matter, in part, because of what they tell us about dress more generally. I argue that clothes are the whole: the emblem of culture itself. Clothes are powerful symbols of culture because they work both as metaphor and as synecdoche. As metaphor, clothes equal culture in a relationship of whole to whole: the process of clothing one's body equals that of learning one's culture. As synecdoche, clothes are part of culture in a metonymic relationship of condensed signification in which the part stands for the whole.


Zora Neale Hurston compared dress to culture long ago. In Mules and Men, she portrayed culture as a garment that fit "like a tight chemise." Worn habitually, the garment of culture became invisible: "I couldn't see it for wearing it." Yet habituation was not total. She was aware that the garment was different from herself: "it was fitting... tight...." The passage, as it engages the clothes:culture metaphor, offers a felicitous entry into theoretical and epistemological issues. Hurston's examination of her culture emphasized its visuality: "I could see myself... and look at my garment." Invoking the "spy-glass of Anthropology," she added a narrow, voyeuristic aura to this examination; she made of it a gaze. And while it was her gaze, it was not primarily reflexive, because "I could see myself like somebody else...." The invisible, internalized garment of culture required a move "away from my native surroundings" to become visible. Hurston must "stand off and look at my garment."


When anthropologists turn a spy-glass on the metaphorical garment of culture, what do we see? When we look at ourselves within culture and at the same time from outside it, how does the garment fit? When we take the metaphor literally and examine actual garments, what do we learn about culture?


In "Clothes Make the Man," Marjorie Garber (1992) explores transvestism as a primary means of producing culture in both literal and metaphorical ways. "Do Clothes Make the Woman?" counters Kath Weston (1993) in regard to dress and eroticism. Both authors address the constitutive aspects of dress, but Weston's analysis of gender identity through lesbian fashion statements also confronts some tenets of performance theory. These works, among other recent studies of dress and gender, center on cultural constructions of persons. In analyzing the constitutive and performative aspects of clothes, many such works focus on cross-dressing. But what borders are crossed in dressing? How can performance theory help us understand how--#151;or even if--#151;clothes make the man a man and the woman a woman? My approach, likening clothes to culture as metaphor and as synecdoche, provides several paths to learning how clothes make gendered persons. Juxtaposing the literal and figurative qualities of dress reminds us that questions of practice are always questions of power. Emphasizing the materiality of the clothing experience and the concreteness of acted-out events, my formulation of practice as performance stresses the embodiment of discourse in lived experience.


Marjorie Garber and Judith Butler have helped me think through troubling questions of gender, clothes, and culture. Transvestism creates culture, Garber maintains. Examining the ways that "clothing constructs (and de-constructs) gender and gender differences... [and] the role of cross-dressing in the construction of culture itself" (1992:3), she notes that cross-dressing challenges binarity, requiring us to critique the categories "female" and "male" (ibid.:10-11). Because transvestism directs attention to the boundaries between categories, and thus to the norms the boundaries mark, it "is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture" (ibid.:17). In sum, you have to know where the boundaries are before you can cross them, and that knowledge is part of what makes the boundaries.


All gender is drag, Judith Butler suggests. Her approach emphasizes the fluidity of categories more than the boundaries between them. Stressing the construction of gender as discourse, Butler points out that "woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightly be said to originate or to end" (1990:33). The open resignification of discursive practice makes gender "a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real.... Is drag the imitation of gender, or does it dramatize the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established?" (ibid.:viii). Questions of cause and effect arise as gender is reified in and imposed on the body, and as it is regulated and policed. The troubled significations in the terms "female" and "woman," Butler insists, encourage us to analyze how "language itself produce[s] the fictive construction of 'sex'" (ibid.:ix). In sum, only when you name the boundary do you construct it, and because the boundaries are constantly constructed and reconstructed, they are ideal and never real.


Performative approaches to gender both depart from and build on anthropological approaches to performance. Victor Turner, observing that social time has a form that is essentially dramatic, persuasively demonstrated how social dramas mutually constitute person and society (1974:32). In emphasizing rituals as the dramatic essence of social expression, however, Turner's approach tended to be functionalist and teleological. Viewing rites as always moving toward equilibrium, punctuated by breach and resolution, he treated real life as episodes in the plot of a play. The life course unfolds, however, as much through daily practices as through points of condensation and interruption. Performative approaches to anthropology (Kondo 1997; Schechner 1988) have been enriched by attention to practice, following the "logic" elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1984, 1990). Stressing that the constitution of habitus and identity is ongoing, rather than defined only by hypermeaningful episodes, Michel de Certeau (1984) has emphasized that practice is what happens in mundane activities. Thus we learn to walk the walk.


In recent years, performance theory has been applied in the analysis of gender (Case 1990), and performance approaches in anthropology, influenced by Bourdieu's works, pay increasing attention to habituation as it operates in processes of embodiment. Shifting from viewing cultural productions as enactments that occur in ritual breaches to understanding them as actions that are intertwined with quotidian concerns helps us avoid overprivileging the outcome of a process.


Maybe Judith Butler (1990) said it best: gender is trouble. Gender gets us into trouble, and trying to explain gender never ceases to cause trouble. Performance theory seems to offer a resolution to that trouble. Is gender "all made up"? So Rosalind Morris's (1995) title suggests. Or, as Weston (1993) alludes, is performance theory all dressed up with no place to go? Performance theory cannot resolve all gender trouble, and it causes some troubles of its own. The cultural anxiety of the postmodern condition, of which Garber writes, is revealed, but not alleviated, by unveiling the constructedness of gender identities. Gender is real. Focusing only on discourse can make us forget that fact. As I investigate expression through dress, I return always to the limits of such expression. "Gender no more resides in gesture or apparel than it lies buried in bodies and psyches" (Weston 1993:16). When we break gender loose from essential categories, Morris notes, we must take care, for such rupture may "entail the ironic effacement of gender itself,... [creating a] principle of 'genderal' emptiness" (1995:583-584), which could blind us to the historical and political meanings of gender. Although categories are continuously resignified and identity is fluid, those processes do not happen randomly, and they do not happen in ways that render all identities equivalent. Signification does not have free play in our material world. "[B]odies are not passively inscribed by signs, they are inscribed by people who select items of material culture from a restricted range of options and arrange them according to imaginations that are shaped by historical developments" (Weston 1993:13-14; Connerton 1989:72 also discusses inscribing practices).


Because gender is real, I insist on paying attention to the body, the object, the realities of everyday life, and the imbalances of power. Like other feminist scholars, I am concerned with contradictory effects and desires entailed by garments that are simultaneously modern and traditional, such as the Muslim women's veil (El Guindi 1999). In contemporary urban Cairo, Arlene MacLeod (1991) notes, lower-middle-class women begin to veil as they enter the waged work force, not because they are removed from it. Among Egyptian Bedouins, Lila Abu-Lughod (1986) observes, veiling provides women with self-assurance, marks their position in a cultural group, and offers personal privacy in a demandingly collective environment. When Cayllominas select polleras from a wide range of available clothing options, they appropriate and transform the traditional and the modern. Like veils, polleras are distinctively gendered, politically charged ethnic emblems. They have been invested with symbolic weight as they have evolved over the centuries. Their meanings have helped create and have been created by the political and ethnic troubles in which Caylloma has long been immersed, and thus are not detachable from those troubles.


The garment of gendered culture often does fit tight. Idealized norms of gender do exist, and they are policed by practices that regulate sexuality and sexual behavior. Ethnic identity and expression are also controlled through gendered discourses. Clothes make the gendered person, and the weight and force that clothes place on the body is not "merely" symbolic. Polleras are heavy! In Caylloma, where male and female persons use recognizably different dress, gender trouble rarely stems from confusion about appropriate male or female garb. Gender identity is constructed through clothes over the life course, but not in predetermined ways; gendering is not reducible to filling one individual's colors inside the lines of gendered structures.


Dress in Caylloma both makes and crosses borders. Bordados generally construct and conform to binary male and female patterns of identification: bordados are women's clothes, not men's. But cross-dressing abounds in ritual performances, in which men wear women's skirts: bordados are women's clothes, appropriated by men. Ritual transvestism in Caylloma, therefore, far from only challenging binary male-female distinctions, also serves to buttress them. Discourses about male appropriation of female dress, concerned with sexuality, potency, desire, and danger, express cultural beliefs in the need to control female power. Gender is also performed in the domains of artistic creativity and commercial production. Recall that Leonardo Mejía said, "When I see a woman in polleras, I always call out a greeting. She is from my place." But she is also wearing his clothes--#151;the clothes he made. Bordados are men's clothes too. By watching women, by making gendered bodies their business, and by making women's bodily surface their artistic corpus, Caylloma men claim a stake in producing gendered persons. And by wearing bordados , women participate in the ongoing construction of their gendered identities as active subjects, despite and because of the ways they represent themselves as adorned objects.


As an ethnographer, I also claim a stake. My own gaze is leveled on Caylloma bordados as a domain of representation that depends on the intimate relationship between clothes and gendered bodies. I have tried not to substitute my analysis for the perceptions of the people with whom I have worked. In viewing bordados through the spy-glass of anthropology, I came to recognize that their ambiguities are primarily questions of power. Clothes have power as shield and as sign: power to represent norms of femininity and masculinity, and to dissent from them; power to express ethnic identity, and to repress it; and power to protect the fragile body beneath the dress, and to project a visual image of defiant pride.




Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse