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October 9, 2009
The bowler hat: Born in Britain, perfected by Bolivia

Worldfocus producer Ivette Feliciano explores the background behind a fashion staple in Bolivia: The bowler hat.

In April, I went with a team from Worldfocus to Bolivia. We did a number of pieces on the culture and politics of the country.

While there, we became fascinated with the way many of the indigenous women in the country dressed. These women are called “cholitas” — traditionally-dressed Aymara indigenous women, many of whom occupy the lowest socioeconomic rung in Bolivian society. We saw countless women hurrying about the busy streets in the country’s capital, La Paz, decked out in fringed shawls and traditional multi-layered skirts called polleras.

We became particularly intrigued with the item that completes these outfits: A small felt bowler hat that sits balanced on top of one’s head.

You might not guess it, but these hats — considered by many to be the unofficial national symbol of Bolivia — have their roots in (of all places) Europe. The bowler hat, also known as a derby hat, was designed and created by hat makers in London in the 1800s. They were designed to provide gamekeepers with a hat that would remain atop their heads as they rode horses under low branches. It’s been popular in Bolivia since the 1920s.  For more about the history and meaning of the bowler,  watch our video from Bolivia.

– Ivette Feliciano

For more Worldfocus coverage of Bolivia, visit our extended coverage page: On the Ground in Bolivia.




I am really grateful for this video that has helped to answer a question that I had for a very long time. I just returned from Bolivia this summer and was able to attend the exhibit in La Paz titled: “La Mujer Indigena en la Ciudad” – The exhibit honors the Cholita’s presence in the city, and helps to combat negative stereotypes of this economically struggling sector of bolivian society.

What I would like to know is what makes the bowler hat indigenous, If the cholitas have only been wearing them for about 200 years – what were they wearing prior to colonial times? And, the video did not mention anything about the colonized peoples reappropriating European culture/customs. I think it would be safe to say that the cholita’s dress is a living symbol of the colonial exchange which took place – I hope to see more work done on this in the upcoming years.



Reminds me of the mother in the film, “You Can’t Take it With You”. She became a playwright because a typewriter was delivered to their house in error. The variety of cultures never ceases to amaze me; I admire this sense of tradition.

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