Kuna & Embera people of Panama August 01 2014


Colourfully clothed Kuna people can be spotted everywhere in Panama city but most Kuna people live on the San Blas Islands, located on the Northern coast of Panama. Some also live in Colombia. The traditional outfit from the Kuna people contains beautiful and time consuming techniques.

Attached to the front and back of a blouse is the traditional mola, a colourful panel, made from different layers of fabric of which shapes and prints are cut out using the “reverse application” technique. The prints are inspired by the body paint Kuna people used to apply to their bodies before this tradition changed due to the influence of Spanish missionaries during colonisation.

Part of the traditional outfit is a dark blue cotton skirt with a colourful, almost African style print, which can also contain flower patterns. The Kuna smuk is made of this fabric. This smuk is shorter than the traditional size smuk because the Kuna ladies where the skirt until their knees. I have purchased the fabric in Panama city, a shop where I found many Kuna ladies buying fabric for the skirts and for their red and yellow headscarf. 

From enkel to just below the knee Kuna ladies wear a string with beads wrapped around their legs which form beautiful partners. The beads are worn pretty tight and also say to reduce the growth of the leg muscle. 



Embera people live in Eastern Panama and cross the border into the Western part of Colombia.

The Embera ladies explained that every month has a specific fabric print, the ladies have to buy this ‘fabric of the month’ for themselves and for their daughters and use it as a skirt.  They don’t have to wear the same fabric the whole month, but have to own at least one version of this print. They also mentioned that the heavier the print, the more important the lady is in the community.

Traditionally the fabrics are made in the village but now the fabrics are imported from overseas by the local markets. The 3 Embera skirts I brought back are purchased in the community and have been worn by Embera ladies.
Embera ladies bodies are covered in patterns made with a type of paint sourced from local trees which last for several months. The top they only wear for visitors.

Men, traditionally wear a string around their hips on which a long fabric is placed on the front reaching lower than the knee. Influenced by the outside world, some men and boys now combine it with shorts.