Friday, February 11, 2011

CYL: The Wild, Wild South- Gaucho Gear

Three gauchos 'fighting' for the camera- early 1900s

¡Saludos, mis amigos!

One of the more popular branches of steampunk is Weird West- a sub-genre that despicts science fiction, horror, or fantasy out of the Old American/Mexican West of the late 19th and early 20th century; such as Wild Wild West (television series and movie), Jonah Hex (comic), Deadlands (game), and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (television series starring the awesome Bruce Campbell).

Now, I'm not saying that Weird West is weak or overplayed- it's just that there are so many spins you can try on it. I rarely see Native American or Mexican characters portrayed or created (if at all in general despite- y'know, being there) and often there's a high preponderance of cowboys, lawmen, outlawmen, and saloon girls. Mix it up! You can still have your roguish cowboy flair and still be creative- just look at today's inspiration from the Pampas of South America. I give you: gauchos!

A gaucho thundering across the plains hunting rhea with his signature bola. (Abrancoalmeida)

Historical Background
The gaucho is quite similar in function and folklore as the American cowboy, riding the Pampas of South America rather than the Great Plains of the North. The Pampas is a vast grassland that stretches from the very tip of southern Brazil, through much of Argentina, and into Uruguay. Cowherds have existed here in some capacity for some time, earliest recorded in the 17th century, but much like in the United States urbanization sparked a cattle boom. Cities like Buenos Aires were growing in the wake of the great chain of South American revolutions in the 1820s and an army of rough, tough cowherds were needed to help supply the demand for meat.

Again, similar to American cowboys and Mexican vaqueros, being a gaucho was an equal-opportunity occupation (as is the case with many difficult, dangerous jobs). Gauchos were of Spanish, Portuguese, Native American, and African descent- or any other mixture thereof. Immigrants from areas like Andalusia and the Basque region were also not uncommon, considering their heavy traditions of herding. Female gauchos have even been recorded. In addition to their herding services, gaucho were also called upon as militia and cavalry because of their riding expertise and brilliant coordination on horseback with weapons such as the bola.

Gaucho in 1870. (

The late 19th century saw a serious decline in the gaucho way of life, with Argentina and other countries enacting passport laws that made wandering the plains in the natural cycle of seasons more difficult. Also many areas of the Pampas were being fenced in, making herding cramped. However, as faint in comparison, the gaucho (and not just their legend or culture) survive to this day- particularly in Argentina, where the cattle trade continues to prosper. Tango dancing was influenced by gauchos and their spirited rendez-vous where guitars were often played and fused with the cultures of the immigrant or mixed-blood attendees. Now it's a national pastime in Argentina and around the world. Romanticized stories, poems, and songs pervade South America about the lonely gaucho on the plains; noble, strong, and untamed by civilization.

The Basic Kit
Gaucho clothing, or las pilchas, is a mixture of traditional European and Latin American dress styles and developed for practicality on the plains. Flat, brimmed hats (typically felt) called chambergos (similar to a felt slouch hat) kept sun and rain off of the face, like an American cowboy's stetson- although later period gauchos also wore berets. Cape-like ponchos made from wool protected against inclement weather and were made in a variety of colors and patterns. They also doubled as a blanket or could be tucked into the belt when not in use to act as padding- which is very welcome during long days of riding (ever ride a bike for a long period of time... kind of like that). Plain shirts of the period and vests were often worn underneath with wool slim-tailored jackets (similar to a suit coat, just rougher looking).

An exhibition of 19th century gaucho ponchos at the PROA museum in Buenos Aires

Below the waist were those famous trousers, the bombachas. They were wide-legged  for movement, but cut at the knee or shin so that they could be tucked into boots (to protect from snakebites or irritation from tall grass or brambles). Traditionally gauchos wore another garment called a chiripa, a piece of woolen cloth wrapped and tucked around the belt and legs. The casual observer would remark that this resembles a diaper, but this wrapped skirt served the purpose of protecting the wearer's legs and middriff from cold and rain, in addition to giving gentle support for riding. Lastly, all gauchos wore boots in two different styles. Old-fashioned gaucho boots were made from a single piece of hide and (oddly enough) were missing toes. Why? Well... thus far the sources I've found haven't had a single explanation other than poverty. Which doesn't make any sense to me; why can't the boots be shorter?

At any rate, regular tall boots were worn by wealthier individuals or for special occasion- they were often cast-offs or surplus from the Argentinean army. (Wow! Gauchos shop at army-surplus too!) The cuff of the boot was often decorated with brightly embroidered or appliqued designs. These became a lot more popular later in the 19th century, hence why you rarely see photographs of the toe-less boots.

A traditional Uruguayan gaucho, armed with a bola (Uruguayblog)

During special occasions or festivals, gauchos were renowned for breaking out their flashiest duds and even had reputations of being somewhat foppish. The best colors, shiniest boots, best-looking spurs, and metallic decoration came out in full force. I'd imagine a group of them at an event, with their bolas and knives, would make quite an interesting sight... and speaking of bolas...

A 19th century facon in its engraved sheath.

Tools of the Trail
The constant companion of the gaucho, other than his horse, was his trusty knife- or facon. The long, double-edged facon could make easy work of any job the trail would throw, from gelding steers to cutting leather to skinning animals. Typically the facon would be kept sheathed in a broad rastra (belt) that was sometimes decorated with various gold and silver coins and these belts became quite showy later on in the 19th century.

Being on horseback so much, another vital accoutrement were the gaucho's spurs, also known as nazarenas because they resembled the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ wore during his crucifixion. These gorgeous pieces of metalwork not only made striking accessories, but helped jolt a horse along if it was spooked or obstinate. Formal spurs would be inlaid with gold or silver, gemstones, or finely cast with Spanish floral motifs.

Showy 19th century gaucho spurs inlaid with gold (Antique Arms America)

The weapon of choice for the gaucho was the boleadora, or bola for short. This simple device was originally a hunting weapon of the local indigenous peoples who used them primarily on birds and other small game. Traditionally bola had three weighted balls connected to a center spoke. One ball was always smaller or lighter and that would alternate the weight that would keep the momentum of the weapon going as it went whipping over great distances. The heavy balls would often shatter or bruise the target's legs, such as steers, rhea, or even people, while at the same time tangling them up to prevent escape (I'm not sure how well that would go what with their legs broken, however...).

Why you should go gaucho for steampunk:
First of all, you have all the appeal of Weird West, but with the color and style of South America. It's fresh, different, and there are tons of options. Ladies can easily adapt a basic steampunk look into a gaucho one with the addition of metallic embellishment, a poncho (or one that's been slitted up the front that can be worn off of the shoulders), bombachas, or even a short skirt draped or bustled to look like a chiripa- it's a great look!

 -Ponchos add a rough and tumble appeal to just about any outfit and can be worn tucked up to show off vests underneath or have weapons and belts slung over it. They can also hide things like unfinished outfits, rips, or stains on your costume and can add a dash or color or pattern. Bonus: You can take a nap anywhere!
-Boleadoras- Think of how awesome a steam-powered bola-launcher would look?
-Cintos/belts were broad, leather, and often decorated with pieced coins. Other metallic details like gears, wheels, spirals, or stamped metal pieces could also be used for a more traditional steampunk look.
-Spurs are great finishing touches to any outfit. Attach them to your boots via decorated leather straps to garner even more adoration of your footwear! They also make that gratifying clinking sound on hard floors.
-Chambergos and other brimmed felt hats really mix things up in a sea of bowlers, top hats, and cabby hats.
-Bombachas are just cool. Enough said.
... all right, bombachas are comfortable to wear, can be decorated with metallic accents or be accompanied by a chiripa (yes, I'm serious. When wrapped correctly and paired with bombachas they look great.), or just worn plain. They layer well, can be tucked into boots, and thanks to the 'gaucho pants' trend of a few years ago, you can find piles of them at the thrift store. Besides, you want to show off your boots, right?

19th century painting of a gaucho wearing a chiripa and bombachas.

A timeline of gaucho fashion (v12m)

An 1868 photograph of an Argentine gaucho (Wikipedia)

Suave-looking fellow... lovely moustache, senor. (LenMcAlpine)

An early 20th century belt fashioned from currency of the centuries prior.

Renowned steampunk illustrator Neisbeis's interpretation of steampunk gauchos (Ignacio Lazcano)

Helpful Links
- The Gaucho's Trousseau - a collection of information on gaucho gear, but not the most understandable translation into English- some of the best information out there, though.
- A Playlist of Traditional Gaucho Dancing - a very robust art form, to say the least!
Gaucho Clothes has an impressive assortment of hats (better prices could probably be found elsewhere, however) with historical and geographic background on each style. Great for window shopping, at the very least.
- Great Information on Boleadoras to be found here, including historical background, different kinds of bola, and links to museum exhibits.


  1. Ooh, cool article. I'm planning a steampunk novel set in 1850s Victoria (Australia), and one of my main three characters is half Aboriginal (which is legally hazardous, as things like dreamtime stories can't be used in fiction without permission - but I'm NOT going to pretend they weren't there. Too many people have played that game.)

    Louise Curtis (who wouldn't say no if you wrote an article like this on Aborigines. . . just saying. . .)

  2. Can I tell you how awesome you are for this post?

    Also, one of my favorite aspects of Gaucho culture is the Chacarera
    and it's Gaucho garb in action!

    I'm so bad at this dance, but it's so much fun. I love it when they slip it in at the end of Milongas (Tango dances for the uninitiated).

  3. You forgot another TV called Legend - starring former Macgyver star Richard Dean Anderson.

  4. Excellent post , research and photos are fitting to the topic ....


  5. Hi! I´m from Argentina and must tell you that your information is very accurate. The post is excellent!!

  6. Very nice elaboration on the Gaucho. In Brazil, a lot of people of German (and some other Northern European) descent settled in the southern Brazilian states. For this reason, in the part of Brazil where I live in my fair skin often gets me called Gaucho. I've had people yell it out from cafes as well as address me with it when meeting. It's always good natured. Oh, and the boots are fantastic. Glad to see steampunk embracing it!

  7. Hello:

    The spurs of the picture are not from Argentina. Spurs are using the "huaso" and made ​​in Chile in the early twentieth century.

    Thank you

  8. The explanation for the missing toes of the old gaucho´s boots: the first gauchos did not have stirrups; instrad, they made a knot or put a small bone in the end of the strap, in this way, you must put the strap between the big toe and the "index" toe. It was called " estribar entre dedos".
    After that, the gauchos started to use a small iron stirrup, so small that they only can put two toes in it, or " estribar entre dedos", it can be used in one way or the other , depended of the fancy of the rider.
    Only about 1870, it was common for the gauchos use the kind of stirrup in which, you can put all the foot, and precisely for those years the gauchos started to use boots that covered the toes.
    Excuse my poor english, and I hope to have explain the mistery.