The poncho, a well-known sleeveless garment with unsewn sides and a space for the head to pass through, has its origins in South America along the Andes Mountains. Although the origin of the word poncho is not clear it is believed to come from the Quechua puchu or Mapudungun pontro.
Popular among all the people that have lived along the Andes the poncho is also a very important cultural icon for some indigenous people. One of these indigenous populations has formed the largest group of Indians in South America, which once stood at almost 1.5 million at the beginning of the 21st Century.
The Mapuche people historically occupied half of the territory we know today as Chile and Argentina, but their presence has significantly declined and they now occupy about 10% and 0.004% of the Chilean and Argentine populations respectively. Although there is contention as to the exact origin of the garment, it was the Mapuche who spread what we know today as the poncho throughout Spain and Latin America.The Mapuche are highly-skilled weavers and fashioned a number of items as well as ponchos, including headbands, dresses and shawls. The poncho itself is made by slitting a hole in a length of fabric which is then placed around the neck, allowing the material to drape over the shoulders.
The poncho also held connotations of power among the Mapuche population; the stepped-diamond motif (see left image) was considered to be a sign of authority and was often only worn by older men, leaders and the heads of the paternal lineage in families. Current uses for the poncho include: 1. Rain expulsion: thin polyethylene waterproof cloaks in the poncho shape are worn to protect against the rain. A garment based on the poncho was even used as raincoats for US troops during the Civil War. 2. Fashion item: ponchos are a prominent style piece during autumn and winter in western countries.
Popular among women of all ages and produced in a range of designs and fabrics, the poncho is one of the must-haves in the fashion world. Having been worn by their people for hundreds of years, the poncho is also closely linked to Mexican culture in the form of the Sarape with pre-Hispanic and Iberian motifs. This colorful cloth is widely considered an iconic symbol of Mexico.
The Mexican poncho has two distinct styles: Although the poncho was previously a traditional clothing item born out of the necessity to keep warm and protect the body from harsh weather conditions while still having the freedom of movement to continue working comfortably, it is now more frequently worn as a fashion accessory and can be found in the majority of style outlets. Ponchos have also been drawn to public attention when worn by well-known faces; for example, the actor Clint Eastwood famously wore a poncho in the 1964 film A Fistful of Dollars and more recently the former President George Bush donned a traditional Peruvian poncho alongside the then Japanese Prime Minister and South Korean President at the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2008.
Ironically, even though in history only males were permitted to wear the more lavish designs of ponchos, it seems that modern women are now taking their revenge by wearing colorful, bright and extraordinarily intricately patterned ponchos during the colder months. The poncho continues to be a hugely popular item of clothing and its journey from South America to the west is certainly complete.