These days, society, including men and women, feel restricted by the fickle trends dictated from fashion’s elite. In Lima, however, there was a time when women felt freer, one could say, thanks to fashion and their choice to cover up. These women, who came to be known as tapadas limeñas, were even able to prevent a ban on their garments of choice: the saya (skirt) and manto (veil or wrap).
In his book, Lima: A Cultural History, James Higgins describes the typical attire of the tapadas limeña:
[T]he traditional street dress of Limeña women from the early viceregal period […] to the Republican era […] the saya was an overskirt, worn tight at the waist and raised to show off feet and ankles […] The manto was a thick veil fastened to the back of the waist; from there it was brought over the shoulders and head and drawn over the face so closely that all that was left uncovered was a small triangular space sufficient for one eye to peep through.
Ricardo Palma, Peru’s renowned folklorist, wrote that, “With saya and manto, one Limeña looks just like another, like two drops of dew.” This allowed women to roam the streets anonymously, giving them certain freedom.
Peruvian feminist Flora Tristan also spoke about the liberty provided by the manto and saya. Tapadas limeñas, “can go out alone,” and can easily be confused for someone else. Men, even their own husbands, would not recognize who was behind the veil. La tapada limeña could:
Meet her husband in the street and he won’t recognize her. She intrigues him with her gaze, with her expression, she provokes him with phrases, and they converse. She is offered ice cream, fruit, cookies, a date. She leaves, and in a moment she’s chatting with an officer who’s walking down the same street. She can take this little adventure as far as she likes without ever having to take off her veil.
The saya and manto facilitated transgressions, and for that reason the Catholic church and the Spanish crown attempted to ban it on more than one occasion. The first time was in 1561, put in place by Peru’s fourth viceroy, Diego López de Zúñiga y Velasco. Because it was unsuccessful, between 1582 and 1583 it was declared an offense to wear the saya and manto. This also failed and a third attempt was made in 1601.
Researcher and instructor Juan Luis Orrego Penagos of Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University writes that, the fines that were instituted by authorities “for dressing this way, which wasn’t just ineffective, it actually prompted more use of [the saya and manto].”
Palma wrote that “It goes without saying that the Limeñas bore their flag with courage, and that the viceroys always went defeated, because [successfully] legislating on womanly things requires more force than attacking a barricade.”
To defend their right to use their customary dress when lawmakers first tried to ban [the saya y manto] in 1561, the tapadas limeñas did not protest. Rather, they simply stopped doing traditionally female work, turning the city upside down in just 24 hours.
Palma continues: “My lovely countrywomen have been quite the fans of a good uproar.” What exactly happened in 1561? “The domestic anarchy reigned. Women disregarded completely the care of the house […] the stew was bland, the children couldn’t find their mother to wrap them up or to wipe their noses, husbands walked around with torn socks and shirts that were dirtier than a dishcloth.”
So, the issue was dropped, as would happen later, again and again. Eventually, new fashions from Europe arrived in Lima, and the veiled women of Lima dropped their coverings. But, their legacy remains: the tapadas limeñas were a force to be reckoned with.
The original article in Spanish was written by Martha Meier for El Comercio, and was translated, edited, and adapted by Rachel Chase.
Cover photo: larepublica.pe
This article has been updated from its original publication February 26, 2014.
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