A high-fashion designer in Paris recently copied their look on the runway, Rihanna dressed like one for Halloween, and Gwen Stefani’s been ripping them off basically forever. It’s the “chola look,” a Mexican-American female aesthetic that’s now being appropriated by celebrities. Think white sleeveless undershirts, Dickies pants with suspenders, thinly plucked eyebrows, maroon lips with a lot of liner, big Aquanet-enabled bangs, and a general “don’t mess with me” vibe.
Vice has a great article by writer and art historian Barbara Calderón-Douglass that traces the origins of the chola aesthetic back to WWII, when “pachucas,” the precursors of cholas, in Los Angeles started playing with a new look that flew against the hyper-girly, bobby sox and poodle skirt look of mainstream feminine fashion of the time:
“Pachucas were the female counterparts to pachucos, the Mexican American teenagers who wore zoot suits with high-waisted pegged pants and long suit coats. Pachucas also had their own nonconformist style of dress. They were known for teasing their hair into bouffant beehives and wearing heavy makeup, tight sweaters, and slacks or knee-length skirts that were immodestly short for the time.
“They were a rebel subculture that rejected assimilation into the white, hyper-patriotic spirit of WWII. Their rejection of mainstream beauty ideals and association with a non-white underclass challenged the idea of a unified nation, which the US was desperately trying to portray during wartime. The pachuco and pachuca style became a signifier for a racialized other and was therefore considered un-American.”
This “folk feminist” look gradually developed into the iconic South California chola aesthetic of the ’90s. And it’s about a lot more than heavy makeup and Dickies, says Calderon-Douglas.
“The chola aesthetic was first forged by the marginalized Mexican American youths of Southern California. It embodies the remarkable strength and creative independence it takes to survive in a society where your social mobility has been thwarted by racism. The chola identity was conceived by a culture that dealt with gang warfare, violence, and poverty on top of conservative gender roles. The clothes these women wore were more than a fashion statement—they were signifiers of their struggle and hard-won identity.
“…Being a chola is more than perfect eyeliner, gold accessories, or Dickies. It’s an identity forged out of struggle to assert culture and history, a struggle that continues—just look at the racist “show me your papers” laws popping up in states all over the country, from Arizona to Indiana, and racist Mexican-themed fraternity parties in which frat boys dress not only in ponchos and sombreros but as construction workers and border patrol agents.”
Go and read the rest of the article, which goes in detail on the history of the look, and what it meant to Chicanas then and what it means to them now.