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CULTURAL TRADITIONS in FASHION. The Colourful History of the Poncho


One of the oldest forms of alpaca fur garments, the poncho is more than just fabric wrapped around the shoulders. Rather, it is a strong fashion choice that originated in South America and made its way around the world.

Before the poncho was considered a fashionable clothing choice, it was worn for its practicality to keep mountain dwellers warm in the winter and soldiers dry during the rainy season. Dating back to 500 B.C., the poncho took quite some time before it hit Western culture in 1964 when Clint Eastwood sported the garment in the movie A Fistful of Dollars. From this point onward, ponchos captured the attention of pop culture and were strutted down the runway, most recently in autumn 2019 when ponchos were prevalent in the runway shows of Gucci, Valentino, and other well-known designers.



It is difficult to say exactly where the poncho came from since it has such a deep history moving from country to country. The first known ponchos were worn by the Mapuche tribe, who lived in the Andes Mountains in 500 B.C. and are now made up of nearly 1.5 million people. They were primarily located in modern-day Chile and specialized in weaving dresses, shawls, and, of course, ponchos. The Mapuche’s poncho eventually spread to Latin America and Spain where it was worn by the head of the family and leaders as a symbol of power and authority. At this time, ornate and colourful ponchos were reserved for men only.



It was uncommon to see rubber clothing in the United States until November of 1861 when ‘rubber blankets’ were introduced to the military, which also came in the form of ponchos, meaning you could wear the blanket itself. Ponchos served as a valuable garment due to its ability to repel rain, which made them popular during the American Civil War as they were a cheap option with which to replace a raincoat. These ponchos were made from a material that contained rubber which helped to reinforce the garments’ ability to protect the soldiers from getting wet.



Branching out from the poncho’s roots in South America, the garment has been re-designed in each region where it has flourished.


One of the most well-known forms of poncho comes from Mexican culture. Known as the sarape, this type of poncho was inspired by Iberian and pre-Hispanic designs and comes in two different styles. The first is a traditional poncho worn for its practicality and comfortability which allows its wearer to move freely. The second is a flashier take on the common poncho which has become an eye-catching garment with its bright colours and intricate designs.


In Columbia, the poncho takes the form of a wrap called a ruana which is styled with an opening at the front to allow its wearer the ability to move easily. This opening makes the poncho more versatile as it can be both a coat and a wrap.

Peru and Bolivia

Dating back to the earliest styles of the poncho in 300 B.C., those living in Peru and Bolivia used alpaca fur to craft ponchos incorporated with beautiful textiles. Each village had different styles of poncho that symbolized its wearers hometown. This style of poncho was a staple fashion piece amongst these regions for over 500 years.



It wasn’t until the 20th century that ponchos were recognized by fashion designers as a garment that could be redesigned for the runway. The arrival of the poncho into Hollywood, with Clint Eastwood modelling the garment in the film A Fistful of Dollars, kickstarted its grand exposure in pop culture and fashion. One of the first changes designers made to the poncho was shortening the length and offering it in a variety of materials. Before the 1960s, ponchos were primarily made of weatherproof material. Now, they can be made of anything from linen, wool, and cashmere that can be customised to suit the wearers’ individual style. The poncho can also be seen on the runway and has been considered a trendy autumn garment by famous designers. In 2019, a plethora of well-known brands included the poncho their autumn lines which brightened the runway and gave the season a touch of flair. Gucci, Chole, and Valentino are just a few big names that took part in the high-end poncho trend last year.


From roughing it in the cold mountain air, to the muddy battlefields, to the pristine runways of Paris, the poncho has come a long way. Many countries have adopted the garment and redesigned it as their own, however, it will always remain a strong piece of South American culture no matter how far it travels.