Dressed to Resist, Made to Persist: Indigenous Puruhá Fashion in Ecuador

By Anais Parada

On October 8th, 2019 I was living in Quito, Ecuador while writing my dissertation. I had initially planned on meeting up with my friend Sisa, one of the most prominent indigenous Puruhá fashion designers, to discuss the main themes in my writing and ask for feedback, but that would have to wait. By the time I stood outside the Mercado San Roque waiting for her and a few of her friends, there was an uprising happening in Ecuador. President Lenin Moreno intended to put an austerity package in place that would eliminate fuel subsidies in order to receive emergency financing from the IMF[i]. The effect on indigenous and lower income communities would be detrimental, and these were not the type of people who would stand idly by and lament their lack of political power. After a few minutes of waiting, I heard Sisa call my name and noticed her impeccable outfit, a delicately embroidered blouse, long black wrap skirt (anaco), brightly woven belt (faja or chumbi in Kichwa), and her long hair braided and wrapped with neon pink and blue fabric.

October 2019 protests in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by the author.

We spent that day gathering food in the market to make for the protestors, particularly the indigenous families that had recently arrived from other towns across Ecuador. I watched in admiration as she negotiated with vendors, received donations globally through social media, and organized the buying, the cooking, and dispersal of the food. I cooked with them as they worked in shifts, chatting and laughing, interspersed with moments of concern and sadness. A few days later, it was blankets that were needed. There was plenty of food with more and more humanitarian aid arriving, some from established organizations but many just from groups of friends that were working together, but it got cold at night in the mountains. Many of the protestors that arrived from out of town had nowhere to stay and would need something for warmth besides the fires that were used as roadblocks. I watched a Facebook video Sisa posted a couple days later, with a large group of people in her workspace, cutting fabric and sewing. When I met up with her later to drop off some blankets, she and her friends had a whole truck filled with blankets, shawls, and other clothing to get people through the night.

Sisa, designer of the brand Sumak Churay in the Mercado San Roque, Quito. Photo by the author.

I mention all this because her role as a prominent fashion designer within the Puruhá community is not distinct from her role as an indigenous woman and leader. The choice of dress in indigenous communities throughout Ecuador is also a revolutionary act. When communities from the city of Riobamba and its surrounding countryside came to Ecuador to protest, they were easily identified by their red ponchos, the same red ponchos that people I interviewed also said were associated with other historical uprisings. Drawing from semiotic theory, redness itself acts as a form of socially reproduced qualia[ii], which in many Andean indigenous communities indexes a history of indigenous bloodshed during the Spanish conquest, as well as other instances of genocide and forced labor.

In the 18th century, the diversity of a ‘multiracial’ society had grown and physiological characteristics were no longer understood to be (or never had been) a perfect way to distinguish indigenous, mestizo, or other “mixed” individuals despite best efforts by the Spanish crown to categorize and hierarchize the people of Ecuador. Many individuals were able to dress above their socioeconomic class, and thus the crown established sumptuary laws aimed at enforcing racial and social divisions by controlling what one person or another could wear. Punishment for dressing outside of one’s station included stripping clothing from the body and physical violence, undertaken by elite citizens to control this form of societal subversion.[iii]

In the first half of the 20th century, hacienda and mestizo authorities would use this tactic of stripping clothes from indigenous bodies to get free labor or payment. They would take an item of clothing forcibly, for instance a shawl, poncho, or hat, and ask the individual to perform a job or make a payment to get it back.[iv] As recently as the 1990s many Puruhá individuals mentioned that indigenous people would use mestizo clothing, essentially mass produced global fashion from the U.S. and Europe, to evade discrimination. The revival of Puruhá indigenous dress has really only taken hold in the last decade or two, and what it means for the community, particularly younger indigenous women, cannot be underestimated.

Sumak Churay promotional photo. Model, Belén Pinduisaca.

Of course Puruhá dress never disappeared entirely, and in many ways the Ecuadorian nation-state has taken up elements of indigenous dress as patrimony, a symbol of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and plurinationalism that makes Ecuador unique, in spite of laws and policies that still tend to marginalize these communities. What is different today, is the growth in use of this dress, the fact that young people are revitalizing it, and the fact that these styles are not simple reproductions of “traditional” dress.

The term  “traditional” is laden with the weight of expectations from those outside of the indigenous community, including some global NGOs, museums, and other institutions looking for authenticity based on their own expectations, not necessarily the complex and shifting aesthetics of, in this case, the Puruhá people. Though certainly retaining historical elements and practices in dressmaking, including symbols, colors, and other semiotic sartorial codes that keep the story of pre- and post Incan Puruhá people alive is central to Sisa and other Puruhá fashion designers, so is innovation, exchange, and fun.

Contemporary Puruhá fashion draws from other global fashion styles. Some versions of the “traditional” blouse drop necklines, change sleeve styles, or even introduce corsetry and lacing. Some designers use sequins, beadwork, and other flashy design elements that make for more expensive pieces, often worn at events or by elite Puruhá women, including the Reina de Riobamba (regional pageants winners) and popular singers. It is indeed Puruhá culture that can be “read” in each outfit, but that culture is not static. From Incan and colonial influences, to exchange with other Andean groups, to contemporary global imports, and still, to the pre-Incan symbols, and pre-colonial processes that live on, today’s Puruhá fashion does not evidence one moment of Puruhá history, but rather all of it, including the vibrancy of the community today.

Sumak Churay promotional photo. Model, Ruth Meliza Yumisaca Guacho.

Fashion is disruptive to the processes and effects of colonialism, both historical and ongoing. In the case of indigenous fashion in Ecuador, hegemonic forces have at various times attempted to categorize, repress, change, and incorporate indigenous dress into their own political ideologies, and yet they never truly had control over the narratives embedded in this clothing. Puruhá dress in particular is much more complex, multi-faceted, and tells a far more interesting story than, for example, some museums or western brands that source from indigenous producers can articulate.

Even today, although Puruhá dress has become more recognizable through newspaper features or TV spots, most non-indigenous Ecuadorians I talk to know very little about the style. In some ways this protects Puruhá dress from external appropriation, and a great strength of these designers is that they are doing work by and for the community. Sisa, for instance, employs other friends of hers, and some designers have told me they are able to help women who need an income but can only work from home. This dress is therefore a means to economic sovereignty, as much as aesthetic sovereignty. They are in control of their own story, which in a nation-state that has recently tried to incorporate diverse indigenous groups as parts of Ecuadorian patriotism, can be subversive.

On the night of October 13th the discussion between President Lenin Moreno and CONAIE, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, led to the dismissal of the austerity package. The sounds of explosions were no longer from weapons, but from fireworks. Although there are debates about the potential benefits and detriment to Ecuador as a country, and the actual process that follows will surely present its own challenges, this was proof of the political weight indigenous people in particular held. What’s more, the movement had style. CONAIE’s leaders were dressed elegantly in distinctive regional dress, but so many of the protestors were also there in distinctive dress, in ponchos, in pleated velvet skirts, in anacos, in embroidered blouses, in feather topped hats, and any number of design elements that were as much about tradition as they were about being visible in spaces of disruption.

Sisa’s ability to organize and support communities was also, in part, because of her visibility as a designer. Her social media presence, the resources she has, and her own image within the community are linked to her brand. Even if this was not the case, the seemingly simple choice that many people make daily in Ecuador, to use indigenous dress, but also to change these styles, mix them with other global fashions, and continue to play with their identities through clothing, is a reminder that there are spaces where fashion hasn’t given into false binaries or imposed categorizations, but rather is both/and … Both traditional and contemporary, both wholly Puruhá and encompassing global influences, both an individual and cultural aesthetic, both political and personal, and much more still.

Anais Parada, is an ABD PhD student at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Anthropology, where she focuses on indigenous Puruhá fashion in Ecuador. She was born in Bolivia and received her BA from the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana. She is currently working from Quito, Ecuador with help from the Russel and Dorothy Bilinski Fellowship for dissertation writing.

Her research centers on the use of contemporary Puruhá dress as a means to economic and aesthetic sovereignty in situations where political and social justice is fraught. Specifically, she uses sartorial semiotics to understand how indigenous cosmologies, histories, as well as current cultural and individual identities are embedded in Puruhá dress styles. She is also interested in the alternative and multiple economies that indigenous women in particular employ, which counter nation-state narratives of the historicized mujer indigena. Puruhá designers and entrepreneurs draw from a highly marked and shared cultural commons but are still innovative, creative, and in control of their own narratives of Puruhá identity. Her career will continue to focus on matters of fashion and self-determination, particularly with regard to how nation-states and local communities use cultural aesthetics to establish and shift boundaries of belonging.

[i] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/ecuador-moreno-indigenous-groups-open-talks-protests-rage-191014011131898.html

[ii] Harkness, Nicholas.The Pragmatics of Qualia in Practice, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 44, 2015, pp. 573-589.

[iii] Melendez, Mariselle, 2005, Visualizing Difference: The Rhetoric of Clothing in Colonial Spanish America. In The Latin American Fashion Reader. Regina A. Root, ed. Oxford: Berg. Pp. 17-30.

[iv] Martínez Novo, Carmen, Ventriloquism, Racism and Decoloniality in Ecuador. Cultural Studies, vol. 32(3): 389-413.

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