Prior to the colonial era, the tribes that inhabited the tropical Eastern Bolivian plains and southern region didn’t wear much clothing at all. Some women wore triangular pieces of cloth over their backsides made from feathers of cotton fiber while men wore a sort of sheath or 'carcaj' and even then, only boys over 14 years of age wore them. Both men and women wore their hair loosely and adorned themselves with necklaces made from bones and seeds, feathers, animal teeth, or flowers (the women). Most didn’t wear shoes. Some tribes pierced their lips or ears and adorned them with bones or rods. When it was cold they used animal fur for covering. Only tribal chiefs used feather head covering.
What is today considered to be their "typical" Bolivian clothing was imposed upon them by the Jesuit priests that arrived from Europe to evangelize the region as the other conquistadors didn’t dare challenge the nomadic tribes (and in addition, there was no gold or silver in this region). As of the 17th Century, when the first indigenous reservations were created and directed by the Church in the areas of Moxos and Chiquitos (in the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz, respectively) and in the Chaco region (which covers portions of Santa Cruz, Chuquisaca and Tarija) the Jesuits took it upon themselves to dress the indigenous people. The clothing chosen involved a long, sleeveless, cream-colored cotton tunic that reached to the ankles. They wore “abarcas” on their feet and the men were obligated to cut their hair in the “mushroom” style so often seen in pictures and drawings of the era (like the Franciscan and Dominican priests, only without the tonsure). Women were forced to braid their hair in one or two braids and could use no other adornment other than a necklace with a cross or a flower in their hair when festivities allowed.
This style of Bolivian clothing persisted until modern times, although it eventually evolved and became more colorful. The somber women's tunic became a dress to which colorful ribbons and a frilled collar were added and the dull raw natural cotton color was replaced with strong colors. Cotton was complemented with other thin, light fabrics due to the hot tropical climate. Men began to use wide-cut pants and shirts, invariably of light-colored cotton, and a hat made from woven palm fronds called a “saó”. This style is typical of Eastern Bolivia and is still used during festivities or at tourist attractions.
The women’s dress, known as the “tipoy” or “tipoi” (see photo above) is another example of Bolivian cultural diversity because, although it is commonly used in the departments of Beni, Pando, Santa Cruz, and portions of Tarija, the style wasn’t exactly the same in every one of these areas. The differences are not very notorious, but an attentive person would notice that the tipoy from Beni has a wider, belled skirt and the frills along the neck are a bit longer and more voluminous, while the tipoy in Santa Cruz is straighter and more tubular and slightly more body-hugging with smaller frills. The tipoy in the Chaco region is very loose, without a very defined cut and is basically a rectangular, sleeveless tunic with ribbons for adornment. As to accessories, in the Chaco region they use necklaces made from seeds and bones and a braided bun in their hair, while further north it is customary to use a long loose braid down the back, which may or may not be adorned with flowers.
In the Chaco region another type of traditional Bolivian clothing persists, and it isn’t of Bolivian origin at all. It also was not sed among the indigenous men and women, only those of European descent. The women wore a dress similar to that of the flamenco dancers in Spain: a very full bell-shaped skirt all the way down to the floor with a short sleeveless blouse, just to the waist that has frills on the neck. Sometimes it’s a single-piece dress. The men wore “bombachas”, a very wide balloon-legged pant closed at the waist with a strip of crossed leather similar to a shoelace, with the pant legs tucked into a pair of high and very pointed boots, with a low heel. They wore very wide hats with the front flap folded upward and tied with a leather cord.
The above is what is now known as traditional Bolivian clothing; however, today Bolivians normally use the same clothing worn in the Western world and the typical clothes are used only during festivities. The one exception to this, as mentioned above, are the cholas of Western Andean Bolivia who continue to wear their full, pleated skirts, shawls and hats on a daily basis as they have for several hundred years.
In addition, this is just a summary of the most representative typical Bolivian clothing. There are really 36 native cultures in Bolivia and each has its own typical style of clothing and accessories. To see many more you’d have to attend the many Bolivian festivals and other events that showcase Bolivian traditions. The largest of these are: the Carnaval de Oruro, which features costumes representative of numerous points in the history of Bolivia, and Carnaval in Santa Cruz, the Gran Poder festival in La Paz, the Urkupiña festival in Cochabamba, and other such as the Ch’utillos and Guadalupe festivals. Attending one of these is enough to satisfy curiosity as the parade of typical Bolivian clothing styles is like a colorful party.