Chavela Vargas Wore a Poncho
If you’re going to suffer, sing about it. This is what Mexican rancheras have taught me. And no one respected this philosophy more than Chavela Vargas.
Ranchera songs are populated by the broken hearted who go to cantinas to drink away their sorrows. This music was traditionally dominated by men until Chavela elbowed her way in to make space for las borracheras, women who could drown in alcohol as easily as men could. And before criticizing these tequila drinking mujeres, it should be noted that Chavela & Co came from pre-feminists times. This Cantina Solution was a reply to conformity and fake respectability. Drinking like men suggested a form of emancipation.
Chavela Vargas was born in Costa Rica but moved to Mexico at the age of 14 where she sang in the streets until she got gigs in cantinas. Here she made no secret of her sexuality and was known as a cigar smoking, heavy drinking womanizer. Chavela sang in cantinas for years until she was discovered by singer and songwriter extraordinaire José Alfredo Jiménez.
Jiménez did not play a musical instrument and knew little about musical technicalities but he wrote over 1,000 songs many of which are still well-know today. Together, Jiménez and Chavela turned pathos into poetry.
Chavela felt at home with Jiménez’ songs. Take, for example, En El Último Tragowhere the singer asks an ex-lover to drink together until oblivion. Because:
The time hasn’t taught me anything,
I always make the same mistakes,
I drink again and again with strangers
and mourn because of the same sorrows.
Once her career took off, Chavela came in contact with a new milieu. She became friends with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and was often their house guest. It’s also rumored that Chavela and Frida had an affair together. Besides, Frida liked to wear huipiles, Chavela ponchos. If you saw the movie Frida, you can’t help but remember Chavela singing La Llorona.
But the Cantina Solution caught up with Chavela. She became a major alcoholic and, during the 1970s, gave up singing. But almost 20 years later, at the age of 81, Chavela returned to the stage. She debuted at a sold-out Carnegie Hall at the age of 83. After each song, she was rewarded with a standing ovation. The audience could not have enough of her. In the words of Pedro Almodóvar, Chavela made of abandonment and desolation a cathedral in which we all found a place.
The Spanish poet, Federico García Lorca, was one of Chavela’s passions. Unfortunately, García Lorca’s life was brief. In 1936, he died at the age of 38, assassinated during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1993, Chavela went to Spain and stayed in a room that once had belonged to García Lorca. Every day, she said, a yellow bird would come peck on the room’s window and she was sure the bird was the spirit of Lorca himself.
Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved
Ponchos and the Aesthetics of Simplicity
Ponchos are a good example of the Ockham’s Razor Theory that the easiest solution is the best. Instead of being excessively complicated, sometimes ideas need to be pruned and the excess trimmed. That’s why the razor. A poncho is little more than a rectangular shaped cloth with a hole in the middle. And, because of its simplicity and practicality, it’s been around since ancient times.
Some of the most amazing ponchos come from Peru and, in particular, the Paracas culture (600 BC–175 BC). In 1920, archeologists discovered about 2000 textiles in graves on the south Pacific coast of the central Andes. Mummified bodies were wrapped in layers and layers of woven and embroidered textiles. Thanks to the arid climate, these textiles were conserved and in excellent condition.
The word “Paracas” comes from “para-ako” from the Quecha word meaning “sand falling like rain”.
The textile workers of Paracas were highly skilled. With simple tools, they were able to produce magnificent textiles. Weavers used cotton and the hair of alpaca and llamas to make their ponchos suggesting that the Paracas culture was involved in trade since cotton was grown on the coastal area whereas the wool came from the Andes mountains.
Some textiles were left in their natural color but others were dyed. Cochineal bugs were used to make carmine and plants for the other colors. The effect of colored ponchos against the beige and brown landscape must have been magical!
Textiles were not just for clothing oneself. They also were a means of sharing ideas, beliefs and social status. Patterns and motifs helped to communicate these ideas. The motifs were generally embroidered onto to the textiles. Much use was made of geometric and anthropomorphous animal designs of felids, monkeys, birds and serpents. Winged figures probably representing shamanic flight into the spirit world were also abundant.
There are many figures dressed in ponchos found on Moche ceramics. The Moche ceramists of Peru were highly skilled artisans who produced a variety of decorated vessels in the form of drinking jugs, jars, bowls, cups and dippers. Moche ceramics tend to be narrative. They also often portray highly explicit depictions of sexual acts. Unfortunately, they were not appreciated by the Spanish Conquistadores who took many of these huacos eroticos and smashed them to pieces.
The use of ponchos was not just limited to Peru. Mexico, too, made good use of ponchos. When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, he found Aztec men wearing highly colored ponchos made from a mixture of cotton and cactus fibers. The Aztecs believed that color helped to ward off evil spirits and used organic materials of all types to make dyes.
The women wore blouses, huipiles, similar in shape to a poncho except that the huipiles’ sides were sewn up whereas the ponchos’ were not.
One of the most popular types of Mexican ponchos is that made from the colorful serape blanket whose origins can be traced back to the Chichimecs of Coahuila. The famous singer Chavela Vargas eulogized the poncho by often wearing it when she performed.
Native American Indians also wore ponchos but theirs were made from animal hides. They also painted these hides with pigments and decorated them with beads and fringe. The Navajos were excellent weavers and, instead, made textile ponchos.
Spaghetti Westerns contributed to the rediscovery of the poncho in contemporary society. In The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Clint Eastwood wore a poncho which was later copied by Marty McFly in Back to the Future III.
Hippies, an evolution of the beatnik hipsters, were in to anything alternative, easy and questionable. Hippie fashionistas eagerly adopted the use of ponchos. As did Homer Simpson many years later.
We’re not sure why, but lately rappers seem to be flaunting ponchos. Macklemore and Young Thug wear them while performing. Drake, instead, enjoys wearing a Chanel poncho while being photographed by paparazzi.
Despite its simple design, a poncho offers an infinite number of possibilities. That’s why it’s difficult to find a contemporary designer who hasn’t presented a poncho in at least one collection. Salvatore Ferragamo, Kenzo, Dries van Noten, Nina Ricci, Christian Lacroix, Yohji Yamamoto, Moschino, Laura Biagiotti, Givenchy, Junya Watanabe, Valentino, Stella McCartney, Burburry, Vivienne Westwood, Comme Des Garçons, Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Tsumori Chisato, etc. all have presented ponchos on their catwalks.
Next time I go to Paris, I would like to wear a poncho like one of Dolce & Gabbana’s. I’m afraid that the rose embroidered fringe poncho would make me feel like an aging flamenco dancer so I’ll settle for the black and white polka dotted one instead. And Martin Margiela’s poncho that looks like a semi-shredded turtleneck sweater would be great to wear when the sky is gray.
The next time I’m at San Lorenzo’s outdoor market, I will look for a used lace tablecloth that I can tinge with tea then cut into a faux fashionista poncho Alberta Ferretti style. Or even a crocheted cloth with appliquéd flowers to imitate Emilio Pucci would be good, too. Only where will I find the right kind of fringe?
The autumn might find me looking for fake fur to make a Roberto Cavalli style poncho. But maybe I’d feel more at ease in a studded and striped poncho like that of Yves St. Laurent.
But whatever poncho I’ll wear, it will be Muy Marcottage and handmade! Because we Boho-chic women can easily make ponchos by recycling old clothes, tablecloths, doilies, and fabrics in general.
So why not split some seams to transform an old boring sweater into a short and chic poncho. Or sew together all those neck scarves you don’t wear any more to make a casual covering. Or, for Mother’s Day, transform your baby’s blankets into a poncho for Grandma who will certainly tear at the eye with delight!
Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Korzekwa. All Rights Reserved