Walking the streets of Sucre, Bolivia, over a decade ago, photographer Delphine Blast was struck by the Aymara women and how they dressed in layered skirts and shawls, with a bowler hat perched atop their long black braids. The women were both tough—years of hard work etched in their faces, weathered by the harsh altiplano climate—and delicate. She remembers being impressed by their strength, especially after she learned of the social and racial discrimination they had long endured.
This was before the 2005 election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first Amerindian president, under whose leadership the majority indigenous population saw greater recognition and autonomy. When Blast returned recently to La Paz, she noticed a shift, especially among the younger generation. These women, known as cholitas—a diminutive of the pejorative Spanish word chola, in reference their Indian heritage—had been reclaimed by a new generation. There was a cholita modeling school and television show, and their traditional dress was even inspiring broader fashion trends.
So Blast decided to tell the story of what it means to be a cholita today. She would focus on their distinctive style of dress, using this symbol of cultural identity to celebrate their Andean heritage but above all, she says, their femininity, elegance, and dignity.
She met cholitas at street festivals and at the modeling school and invited them to come sit for studio portraits, dressed in their best. Some came with elaborate outfits reserved for special occasions. One of the subjects, a dentist, said she would never be able to work dressed like this. Others brought more casual garments. But no matter the level of dress, or the cost, the signature bowler hat remained the same.
As legend has it, the popularity of the hat, known as a borsalino, arose from a mistake. At the turn of the 20th century, a large shipment of hats was ordered from Europe for railway workers, but they were too small. Rather than send them back, the hats were given to the local women. Some versions of the story say the women were told wearing the hat would help with fertility, others that a savvy hat merchant marketed them to the women as being all the rage in Europe.
Whatever the case, the trend caught on and, along with the layered skirts and shawls, the borsalino became an integral part of traditional dress and cultural identity.
Blast took the portraits against a backdrop of traditional woven Bolivian textiles in colors chosen to echo the bold hues of the whipala indigenous flag. In post-production, these were made into the shape of a circle to signify the idea of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, a central figure in indigenous spiritual beliefs.
While Blast acknowledges these stylized images refer to anthropological photography, she encouraged the women to be more candid when posing for their portraits by playing with their hair or tipping their hat. “I wanted to see the woman and not the model … to go beyond the postcard.”
You can see more of Delphine Blast's work on her website.
Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor for National Geographic.