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 🙂

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.

Catléia Shoes

I have to say I don’t like brown shoes. I may even go as far as to say I hate wearing brown shoes. But I recently had the chance to wear a pair of vintage brown shoes that were so beautiful that they almost changed my opinion of brown shoes. They were a pair of brown leather shoes made in Brazil, from the label CatlĂ©ia.

Beautiful brown leather shoes by Catléia.

Beautiful brown vintage leather shoes by Catléia, made in Brazil.

I can’t find much information about CatlĂ©ia shoes, so if anyone can shed any light on them, I would be most grateful. CatlĂ©ia was a label from Brazil. I say was because I think this label went bust in December 1997. The only information I could find on CatlĂ©ia is an address in Campo Bom, which is in the Southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, near the border with Uruguay.

I have read that leather from Latin America is one of the best in the world. From my very limited experience of leather products from this region, I have to agree. The Brazilian-made Catléia shoes I wore were of good quality with beautiful and detailed leatherwork on them.

Side view of the Catléia shoes that Shih Yen wore.

Side view of the Catléia shoes that Shih Yen wore.

I don’t think it’s possible to get CatlĂ©ia shoes anymore. As a brand, they existed between the late 1960s and late 1990s. So, it seems that all the CatlĂ©ia shoes in existence are now vintage. I can’t estimate the age of the CatlĂ©ia shoes that I wore. If I had to guess, I would say between 20 – 30 years old. This attests to the quality of CatlĂ©ia shoes that they have lasted so well for decades.