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  • Gender and the Boundaries of Dress in Contemporary Peru
  • Krista E. Van Vleet
Gender and the Boundaries of Dress in Contemporary Peru. By Blenda Femenías. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 368. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $70.00 cloth; $29.95 paper.

On the first day of class, I often ask students in my course on the Andes to draw—rather than write—what they know about the region. After initial dissimulations about their artistic talents, students draw a variety of images. Many over the years have depicted women wearing full skirts, standing alongside llamas, snow-covered peaks in the background. In this ethnography,anthropologist Blenda Femenías elaborates an engaging and insightful interpretation of the significance of those skirts, called polleras or bordados, for the people of rural Caylloma Province and metropolitan Arequipa, Peru. She argues that clothing is a primary means through which a woman identifies herself as a gendered and ethnic being. At the same time, Femenías complicates any easy assumptions about how gender, race, ethnicity, and class are configured in Peru at the turn of the twenty-first century.

For those interested in material culture, fashion, cloth, and gender, this book offers a deep rendering of those Peruvians who make and sell, wear and desire, polleras. Employing a practice-centered approach, Femenías privileges "the process of clothing the body as a performative realm in which people represent their identities" (p. 19). Reviewing two seemingly oppositional modes of women's dress—de vestido and de pollera, she lays the groundwork for a nuanced rendering of why women wear polleras in a context where polleras are iconic of "Indianness." In chapters such as "Clothing the Body," Femenías analyzes polleras as art forms and symbols, teasing apart the complexities of the characteristics of polleras: their cost, quality, materials, appearance, design, and maker. By commissioning her own polleras and becoming engaged in the processes of buying and wearing as well as producing bordados, Femenías takes seriously her own lived experience of polleras as well as the lived experiences of the women of Arequipa and Caylloma Province.

The author extends her understanding of the material and social aspects of everyday pollera wearing into other chapters that forefront polleras as crucial identity-making tools in particular ritual and political contexts. In a chapter titled "Dancing in Disguise," men don elaborate polleras to dance as witites during fiestas such as Carnival. This ritual dancing is the fulcrum of a discussion of transvestism and gender hierarchy. "Transvestite" is arguably an inappropriate gloss for these men, who are carrying out a civil-religious cargo, and who are neither mistaken for women or for men with divergent sexualities, in spite of their "disguises." Feminías' discussion nevertheless illuminates the complicated ways gendered performances permeate ritual contexts. She extends this discussion in the following chapter, "Marching and Meaning," by focusing on women who wear elaborate polleras for large-scale political events such as assemblies, marches, and elections. Here, wearing polleras figures in the powerful, and sometimes ambiguous, ways that gender and ethnicity are intertwined as women claim belonging to particular localities and collectivities. [End Page 668]

Throughout the book, Femenías also embeds the production and consumption of polleras into the political and economic relationships of Peru at a time of violence and unrest. In the Introduction, "False Borders, Embroidered Lives," we are most forcefully made aware of the sense of terror that permeates the lives of Peruvians, as well as the anthropologist doing fieldwork, in the 1990s. After introducing readers to the markets and workshops in which she did her fieldwork over the course of two years, the author intertwines her discussion of the practice of fieldwork with descriptions of Caylloma homes, market kiosks, and agricultural landscapes in the chapter, "Traveling." In "Fabricating Ethnic Frontiers" the author moves her attention from "[c]haracterizing subjectivity through the relationship between 'field' and 'home'" (p. 74) to the ways ethnicity and race operate in Caylloma and Peru. Although the everyday violence of Peru in the 1990s fades from view in the chapters exploring dress and identity, the culminating chapters return to questions of materiality by delving into the gendered aspects...


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