Alpargatas from Argentina, and Latina jeans

I’ve always had a slight interest in Argentina, ever since I turned down a scholarship to study for a year in Argentina. In this month’s post, I’ll write about alpargatas specifically, which is a type of traditional footwear from Argentina, and more generally about Latina fashion.

In my heart, I know I’ll never be Argentine. I’m not hug-y or kissey. Also, there are many things that I can’t understand, such as Argentine people’s very loose definition of time and punctuality, where being ridiculously late is totally fine. So I got invited to a birthday party of an Argentine friend. I actively tried to be late (by Latin American standards), purposely going shopping beforehand to ensure that I would be late. I was still too early, the first person to arrive, when other people were over an hour late.

The invitation to the party said ‘around (alrededor) 13:30′. I was thinking ‘what does ‘around’ mean?’ The day after the party, a Latino friend clarified for me:

Latino friend: ‘Around 1.30’ means 2 o’clock.

Me: So why don’t they say 2 o’clock?

Latino friend: Because if they say 2 o’clock, then people will turn up at 3 o’clock.

Me: !!! (speechless)

I also don’t understand Argentine people’s obsession with mate (pronounced ‘ma-tay’). Mate is a traditional drink, a type of tea made from the leaves of the yerba mate plant. It is the national drink of Argentina, and Argentine people drink it anytime and everywhere, out of a gourd with a silver straw called a bombilla. Mate is also drunk in Uruguay, Paraguay and the south of Brazil. When friends get together, they’ll drink mate out of the same gourd, sharing the same straw and passing the gourd back and forth between friends. I will drink mate, but I totally think it’s an acquired taste.

Drinking 'mate' with friends.

Drinking ‘mate’ with friends; drinking out of a gourd with a silver straw.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many things from Argentina that I love; for instance they cook a mean barbecue called asado, with beautiful meat. I like tango, and I love alpargatas. My soul may not be Argentine, but my soles can be. Haha!

Alpargatas are traditional footwear worn by gaucho, or cowboys, in South America. Gaucho are found in parts of Argentina, Uruguay and the south of Brazil. Gaucho are famous for riding horses and herding cattle on horseback. In the past, alpargatas were worn in rural areas. They can be worn by both men and women. Traditionally, alpargatas were monochrome, with cotton uppers and either rubber soles or soles made from jute. These days, alpargatas come in all sorts of colours and designs. Forget famous footballers; for me, I think that’s the one thing Argentina gave to the world: alpargatas. In particular, I feel that the label TOMS truly made alpargatas global.

A few years ago, alpargatas with jute soles, called espadrilles in English, were the height of fashion. They were everywhere and I was slightly obsessed with them, but I never managed to get a pair at the time. Probably because I was too picky. Styles I like didn’t come in my size and I didn’t like the ones that were available in my size, like gold or silver glitter alpargatas. And also I didn’t want alpargatas made in China.

alpargatas

Shih Yen’s alpargatas from Argentina. Yes, they are very comfortable.

Finally, I have got myself a nice, traditional pair of alpargatas, made in Argentina. How does one wear alpargatas? They are casual footwear, which can be worn with or without socks, depending on how cold the weather is. If you’re going for a traditional Argentine look, you can wear them with a poncho and bombachas, or gaucho pants. I have neither poncho nor bombachas, but if I did, I think I could totally rock the gaucho look ­čÖé

This leads me to the second part of my post – Latina fashion. Since I didn’t have gaucho pants, I looked for something else to wear with my alpargatas. The only thing I have from anywhere even remotely near that region is a pair of butt lift jeans designed in Colombia. Just as Latino people’s concept of time confuses me, some Latina fashion also baffles me. For instance, you can get padded underwear that will give you a bigger butt! Whaaaat?? WHY?? Anyway, back to my butt lift jeans. When I told a Malaysian friend that I had bought a pair of butt lift jeans, my friend said, “Because you’re crazy?” To which, I replied, “No, because I’m curious.” I am still curious. Even after buying them and wearing them, I don’t understand why anyone would want butt lift jeans.

Shih Yen's butt lift jeans from Colombia.

Shih Yen’s butt lift jeans, designed in Colombia.

These jeans supposedly have special type of stitching to help lift the butt. To be honest, I can’t tell whether there’s any butt lifting action! To me, they just seem to be super tight jeans. In a bid to understand the butt lift jeans, I started asking Latino friends, both men and women, about their opinion of these jeans. Mostly I got 1 of 2 responses: they either laughed at my question, or were puzzled by my question. But in general, almost every Latino person I asked like this style; a couple of women were very passionately in favour of them.

I am still puzzled by butt lift jeans. I think perhaps Asian women are built differently from Latinas, and are not as curvy. I can only conclude that it is a cultural difference because of different definitions of beauty in different cultures. At least I have alpargatas, which I love.

Shih Yen wears alpargatas from Argentina with Colombian butt lift jeans.

Shih Yen wears alpargatas from Argentina with Colombian butt lift jeans.

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Alpargatas from South America

Recently, I’ve been a bit obsessed with footwear called alpargatas, and let me tell you why. It was a couple of months ago after I had just finished writing about Argentine tango shoes. I was walking along wondering what other footwear from Argentina I could write about. I was thinking about alpargatas, but I didn’t have a photo of them. Then, I saw a man walking ahead of me wearing the exact shoe that I was thinking about. I couldn’t believe it. I walked with him for 2 blocks. No, I was not following him! We just happened to be walking in the same direction for 2 blocks. I walked with him and stared at his shoes until I had to turn to go to my workplace. I had my camera with me that day and I wished that I had stopped him, but I am not enough of a lunatic to stop a complete stranger on the street and ask if I can take photos of his shoes! I really regretted it though for I never saw him again. But to be honest, I wouldn’t recognize him anyway; I would only recognize his shoes. For a while, every time I walked that way, I would look out for a man wearing alpargatas. I think of them as the shoes that got away, and the whole incident inspired me to write a poem. Yes, I wrote poetry about alpargatas! I debated whether or not to share my poem here, but decided that since this blog has been non-fiction so far, I would like to keep it that way. So after that very long preamble, let me get on with actually writing about alpargatas.

Alpargatas, or espadrilles in English, are traditional footwear worn by the gaucho, or cowboys, in South America. Gaucho are found in parts of Argentina, Southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. They live in rural areas, and are well known for riding horses and herding cattle on horseback. Alpargatas originated in the Pyrenees, the area between France and Spain, before being brought to South America by Basque settlers. Alpargatas are warm weather shoes, worn in the spring or summer months. Alpargatas can be worn by both men and women.

These alpargatas have the traditional soles of jute rope, but modern uppers made of leather.

These alpargatas have the traditional soles made of jute, but modern uppers made of leather.

Even though alpargatas has an association with peasant footwear, or footwear for the common man, they have become fashionable worldwide. I know this because I have seen alpargatas worn as far away as in New Zealand, and I have also seen them for sale both in New Zealand and in Malaysia at high-end prices for this humble footwear.

Traditionally, alpargatas were made with cotton or canvas uppers and with soles of jute. And traditionally, alpargatas came in monochrome colours like black or white. These days, there are all sorts of modern variations on alpargatas. They come in different colours, fabric design, and different materials. Alpargatas can now have rubber soles instead of jute soles, and some have wedge heels made of jute, but all can still be called alpargatas.

The stranger I saw was wearing this pair of TOMS alpargatas. These alpargatas have modern rubber soles, but traditional canvas uppers.

The stranger I saw was wearing this exact pair of TOMS alpargatas. These alpargatas have modern rubber soles, but traditional canvas uppers (Photo from the TOMS website).

The stranger I saw on the street was wearing alpargatas from a label called TOMS. This is a label started by Blake Mycoskie in 2006. Blake first went to Argentina as a contestant on the TV show ‘The Amazing Race’. When he later visited Argentina again, he saw poor children who did not have proper shoes, and this inspired him to start TOMS shoes. The TOMS motto is ‘one for one’. For each pair of TOMS shoes sold, another pair of shoes would be given to a child in need. TOMS currently gives shoes to children in over 60 countries around the world.

The logo of TOMS shoes, which is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS shoes.

The TOMS logo, which is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS shoes.

Some TOMS shoes are made in Argentina, and the TOMS logo is a variation on the Argentine flag. The logo is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS alpargatas. Personally, I would have a problem if my nation’s flag was used as a brand logo and then placed in such a lowly position as the back of the heel.

Argentine Tango Shoes

When I was in high school in New Zealand, in the weeks leading up to the school ball (equivalent to senior prom in the USA), students in the senior forms had ballroom dance lessons in preparation for the ball. These dance lessons were held during lunch break in the school hall. During these lessons, I learned many different ballroom dances, none of which I can remember now.

The first time that I danced ballroom tango was in one of these dance lessons at school. Unfortunately, the reason I remember this is because I fell down in front of most of the senior school while dancing the tango. I thought I had tripped over the guy’s feet. He claims he pushed me down. Whatever the truth, suffice to say that my first experience with the tango was very embarrassing.

Fast forward many years later, and I enrolled in an Argentine tango class. Actually, ballroom tango is very different from Argentine tango. They are almost like completely different dances, but I signed up for the Argentine tango class anyway. Why? Because I guess I still have some unfinished business left with the tango. Also, the flyer advertising this class claims that, ‘If you can walk, you can dance Argentine tango.’ This intrigued me, and I wanted to find out┬áif this claim is true.

Argentine tango started at the end of the 19th century on the streets of Buenos Aires. It is an intimate and sensual dance, totally improvised, with an emphasis on the connection between the two dancers. Argentine tango is danced to the accompaniment of the bandoneón, which is a musical instrument that looks like an accordion.

My only goal for this class was: don’t fall down, and try and have fun. So far, I have managed not to fall down, but as a beginner I have also been dancing in my socks. Having big guys who don’t know how to dance either step on my toes really hurt! So I thought I would write about Argentine tango shoes.

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A pair of women’s Argentine tango shoes in a peep-toe style.

Both tango shoes for men and women look like regular street shoes. But tango shoes are made of leather or suede, including in the soles, and this makes doing pivots and turns a lot easier. Tango shoes for women are beautiful, and always high-heeled. The heels are around 2.5 to 3.5 inches high (6.5 – 9cm). Women’s tango shoes can be in a covered or peep-toe style, and they are always strappy, with straps that go around the ankle. On the inside, tango shoes should have a soft lining, preferably of leather. To be able to dance in them, tango shoes should fit securely so that the feet are not sliding around inside the shoes. This often means wearing tango shoes a half size smaller than regular street shoes.

So is it true that if you can walk, you can dance Argentine tango? Well… I would say that if you can walk backwards in high heels while doing pivots and turns, then yes, you can dance Argentine tango.