Ecuadorians maintain an adherence to their traditional, native dress that forms a material expression of cultural diversity. Those familiar enough with the country’s cultural history can often derive what province a local is from by looking for distinctive apparel.
The Otavaleños Near Quito
In Quito, it’s common to see the indigenous group known as the Otavaleños. The Otavaleños are largely concentrated around the small town of Otavalo which lies around 80 kilometers north of Quito. They are easily recognizable with the men dressing in white, calf-length trousers, a poncho, and a fedora or felt hat. The Otavaleños men also sport the Shimba, a long brad that they grow to reach their waists. The Shimba is such an important marker of Ecuadorian indigenous identity that the Ecuadorian army does not require men to cut the Shimba off when enlisted.
The women dress similarly, though their colors are often opposed to the men. Whereas the men where white pants matched with a blue poncho, women often dress in a white blouse with a blue or black skirt. While the women often wear shawls as an accessory, it is the jewelry that holds a greater cultural signification. Otavalo women in particular wear necklaces of gold beads with red coral bracelets. The women’s traditional dress is the most similar to an Inca ensemble found anywhere in the Andes.
The Otavaleños are not only known for their distinctive dress and hair; they are also known for producing similar textiles for others to enjoy—a tradition in and of itself that extends back before the Incas. The Otavalo Market, held every week for hundreds of years, is recognized as one of Ecuador’s best indigenous markets, an experience for all travelers who wish to see the heart of Ecuador.
The Ecuadorian Highlands (la Sierra)
Women from villages spread throughout the Sierra traditionally choose to wear full, pleated skirts. Unlike the more muted skirts of the Otavaleños, these skirts are made of bright colors and sport embroidery around the hem.
The Ecuadorian Amazon (El Oriente)
Several indigenous tribes inhabiting the Amazon rainforest continue to adorn themselves in traditional feathered headdresses as well as other accessories with tribal meaning.
The Ecuadorian Coast (la Costa)
The Ecuadorians inhabiting the coast are the most modernized in terms of their dress, and their traditional clothing was not as regionally defined and distinct in the past.
Today, men in coastal regions commonly wear ‘Guayaberas,’ a loose-fitting shirt that often takes the place of a jacket whereas the women usually dress in light dresses. Some ethnic groups have more distinctive clothing traits, however. For instance, the Montubio people (recently recognized as an ethnic identity in 2001) are often identified by their affinity for sombreros and cowboy-style hats—a wide-brimmed style that is no doubt useful in their predominately agricultural culture. The Montubio people are also known to carry machetes and wear wellington boots, although these distinctive features are not generally considered to be ‘traditional costume.’
Another highly recognizable cultural group are the Tsáchila. Although the name Tsáchila means “true people,” the Spanish began calling them Colorados, which means “colored red.” They inhabit the subtropical lowlands of the Santo Domingo county—a region now known as the Santo Domingo de los Tsáchila (of the colored ones). Although the Tsáchila no longer strictly adhere to traditional dress codes, they can still be found wearing their distinctive striped clothing. While men wear more somber black or blue skirts striped with white, women wear festive skirts horizontally striped with bright colors.
The Tsáchila’s identification with color extends beyond their clothing and into their persona. They received their name for their custom of painting their hair and bodies using achiote dye. If the red hair does not tip you off, look for their distinct hairstyle. Traditionally, the men shave the hair on the sides of their heads and hardening the remaining hair with grease to harden their hair into a peaked cap. Legend has it that the Tsáchila did not start painting themselves with red paint until the Spanish arrived, bringing smallpox with them, and the shamanas believed that the achiote dye served as a remedy against the death-wielding illness.