The dictionary defines “pollera” as a long, full skirt with many gathers. We commonly use “pollera” to mean any full skirt. As history and paintings clearly demonstrate, this style of skirt has been found in the women’s dress of Europe since time immemorial. By the law of synthesis found among common people, the name for the skirt was applied gradually to the entire dress; there is nothing new, difficult, or novel about this process. None of the legends concerning the origin of the name “pollera” have any concrete base. All the suppositions and fantasies which pass freely from one person to another have no documented foundation. Furthermore, the dates given by some writers for the origin of the name, around 1900, are completely false; the name “pollera” was used for the typical dress in Panama as early as 1846.
THE POLLERA AS A NATIONAL SYMBOL
Many diverse and complex factors combine to create the identity of a nation. Among these factors traditional culture is frequently mentioned as one of the most important. Traditional cultures seem to germinate spontaneously like plants that grow wild in the forest. They appear as if by accident, without plan, direction, or preconceived ends, and are transmitted from one generation to another independent of the surrounding modern civilization. Traditional culture belongs to the common people, that large sector of society that is neither primitive nor wholly integrated into the modern life of the country. Each region has its own particular characteristics or exclusive traits which differentiate it from others. It is the sum total of these characteristics that go to make up the culture we call folklore and which is frequently mentioned as a basic element in the quality of nationhood. Naturally these folk manifestations assume a distinct and particular form for each group of people, and these differences of taste and feelings are the determinant signs of nationality. Folk expressions must be considered among the most essential foundations of a nation. They are as strong and stirring as the national flag, national seal, or national anthem, at the same time older and more deeply rooted in the lives of the people.
Within specific areas of a nation, expressions frequently vary and change without altering the essence of the original; the Spanish jota, for example, originated in Aragon but is danced with different variations throughout all of Spain. In Panama, the tamborito (Panama’s national dance) is found in almost every region of the Republic, but the basic dance changes little from one province to another; we have not studied Bocas del Toro.
When an element of folk tradition acquires complete acceptance among a people, reflecting the soul of an entire population, then it must be conceded that this element is an ingredient of national spirit and sentiment. There are many folk traditions that have been adopted as truly characteristic of Panama’s nationality, but among all of these symbols probably no single expression stands higher than the pollera, the women’s national dress. Its flowing skirt, abundance of handwork, and ornate jewelry mark the dress as one of the most beautiful costumes in the world, admired and cherished by all Panamanians.