Ponchos and Mantas in the Textile Collection of the Museo Histórico Nacional


Isabel Alvarado
Museo Histórico Nacional


The history of ponchos and mantas in Chile is an important element of cultural, national and social identities. Through their materials, production and decorative techniques surviving examples in the collection of Museo Histórico Nacional, Santiago, illuminate this rich, interwoven web of Chilean identities. 


Roots of the poncho in the clothing of native indigenous people

Ponchos were worn throughout the Andean area by men of all classes and background.  Firstly worn by the indigenous people they were adopted by non-native men and began to incorporate European elements in its design. 

Ponchos were used for a wide range of activities; long and heavy ponchos for travel, others functioned almost like blankets, others worn for agricultural work.

Ponchos could be made from a range of materials from vicuña hair to cotton, wool and silk. They might incorporate stripes or more complex patterns.


An 18th century European Poncho

Often ponchos worn by Europeans were made from luxurious fabrics which changed its function. An 18th century poncho in the collection comes from Alto Peru. It is made from cotton and richly embroidered with silk and metal threads with a pattern that includes mythological figures and a range of animals including the viscacha, a rodent of the Andes highlands. Through its design it tells us about a hybrid period where elements of European origin coexisted with local elements’. 

As well as demonstrating the influence of Europe in its design, this poncho also helps to explain the nature of American Vice regal society in 18th century Chile, where it would have been worn for formal functions.


Mantas of Chilean Independence leaders

Two simple mantas which belonged to important leaders of Chilean Independence provide a stark contrast to the elaborate 18th century poncho. 

One manta is white, with darker stripes woven in silk and cotton fringes sewn by hand and made in Perú.  It belonged to Bernardo O’Higgins who was the first president in Chile.

The second manta is woven in alpaca hair with blue and green wool stripes.  This belonged to José Miguel Carrera who was leader of the Revolutionary Junta during the first stage of the Chilean Independence process. 

‘These simple mantas, apart from being an important testimony of elaboration in techniques and design, have the added value of belonging to two relevant political leaders of the Independence of Chile’.


Symbolism of Mapuche textiles

Two mantas in the collection from the Mapuche people. The symbolism of Mapuche textiles is highly complex and weaving in this culture is strongly related to economic, social, aesthetic and religious aspects (for Mapuche Symbolism see P Mege Rosso, Arte textile mapuche, Santiago 1990)

Mantas are exclusively male garments in Mapuche culture and the figures and colours of the design often have highly personal meanings. Black is a colour reserved for nobles, red is associated with blood. 

Mapuche mantas have three basic elements in their composition:

  • The total area is the field
  • Vertical columns revealed information about the identity of the wearer
  • Different ways to finish the edges

The two mantas in the collection clearly belonged to caciques or chiefs because of their complex patterns.


Manuel José Balmaceda’s manta

The collection contains a central Chilean manta which belonged to Manuel José Balmaceda, father of the Chilean president José Manuel Balmaceda.  It is made from very fine red wool cloth, probably from England and has two vertical stripes of embroidered floral motifs in white silk thread, which suggest a link back to a very specific traditional form of manta.

The floral embroidery on this manta may have influenced by the chamantos from Doñihue, a type of small ornamented and colourful manta.  Chamantos are woven on a vertical loom and form part of the huaso, the rural Chilean horsemen, costume.


Ponchos in the 20th and 21st century

In contemporary Chile the wearing of ponchos is restricted to the rural world and the costume of the huasos for traditional celebrations.

In the 1970s the poncho became a fashionable garment for women’s wear. These were usually knitted and suggestive of an ethnic influence, corresponding to the hippie era.

During the same period the poncho was worn by men associated with certain political views and art students.

The poncho continues to make an appearance as a garment of fashionable womenswear as it did in the catalogues of main department stores in winter 2004.

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