The Surprising Origin of Ponchos

In the immortal words of musician, philosopher and diplomat Frank Zappa, “Is that a Mexican poncho or a Sears poncho?” This question forces us to think about the roles that capitalism and globalization have played since this 1960s quote. But many still wonder, where did the poncho come from, and who is the proud originator of such a versatile piece of rain and weather gear?

The Surprising Origin of Ponchos

Ponchos are known in the US mostly as rain gear but the origins of ponchos tells us they began as an all-weather garment. In the Andes mountains of South America lived the Mapuche people, who once covered vast territory in modern day Argentina and Chile. Because of the high elevations, cold weather and general conditions, the Mapuche wore ponchos as all-purpose outerwear. 

Some controversy exists about the origin of ponchos, but the Mapuche are known to be the ones who shared their amazing garment with the rest of Latin America, and with their Spanish conquerors. Skilled weavers, these indigenous people also used ponchos to denote authority. They wove in a special pattern using diamond shapes, and these were often worn by male tribal leaders.

The tradition of “male only” poncho wearing, especially of particular patterns, has led to a modern revolt in fashion: women often wear ponchos as a source of pride in their liberation.

In Mexico, ponchos caught on and melded with the tradition of using colorful symbols in clothing. Mexican ponchos are some of the most well known in the world, although today they are as much a fashion symbol of tradition as a practical piece of clothing. Because synthetic textiles are so much warmer, and often more practical than wool ponchos, they are often fashioned out of all sorts of materials.

Ponchos in the US are perhaps most famous as both a counter-culture symbol, as they were a favorite apparel choice among the flower children of the sixties and as a symbol of the West. Clint Eastwood wore the poncho throughout his 1964 classic, “A Fistful of Dollars” and combined western pride and Mexican influences. 

The word “poncho” comes, most likely, from the language of the Quechua people (“punchu”) or the Mapudungun (“pontro”).

People often associate ponchos with Mexico, but the origin of ponchos is from artisan practices of people that lived in the Andes. As with many things, a great idea will catch on and spread, while each culture tries to improve upon it. Ponchos have been issued to soldiers from the American Civil War to World War II, so they have always been versatile. As one of the few pieces of clothing that is both practical and stylish, ponchos are likely to hold their own even in an age of more form fitting, high tech styles.