The Evolution of Bomba Attire from the 17th Century to the Present
Written by: Milteri Tucker Concepción
Both a traditional dance and musical style, Bomba has become a community expression of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Rooted in the musical traditions the enslaved Africans brought to Puerto Rico in the 17th century, Bomba gatherings have been a means of resistance, self-expression, and community building for Puerto Ricans throughout the past four centuries.
With over twenty dresses on display, the exhibit Resistencia Y Libertá premiered at the Cultural Center Carmen Sola de Pereira in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on February 3, 2022. The smaller selection on display at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion highlights the evolution of bomba attire since the 17th century. It includes a replica of a 17th-century dress and loans from Bomba Matriarchs Dona Caridad Brenes de Cepeda, Raquel Ayala, and Isabel Albizu.
Bomba history dates back to the 17th century; while not much description exists from the dresses used in the Bomba gathering of the time, we can, however, infer through books and documents from the Spanish colonizers the 17th century was an era that was influenced by the Queen of England, the designs of the dresses had bustiers to accentuate the figure, bell sleeves that were sleek to the arm, and some dresses were high colored and others showed cleavage.
While the Spanish rulers imposed their dress code, influenced by Spanish, French, English, and Danish fashion, Afro-Puerto Rican seamstresses redesigned their dresses and made them their own.
With its use of “puffy” sleeves and high collars, the 18th and 19th-century dresses reflect French fashion’s influence. Since white or cream-colored cotton dresses were the predominant working-class fashion among black women in Puerto Rico, one can infer that these dresses were worn by women at Bomba gatherings. Cotton was the most common and accessible fabric for working-class families, and light colors kept them cool in the hot and humid climate of the Caribbean. Other colors such as purple, indigo, black, red, and other materials such as satin, lace, and ruffles were predominantly used by wealthy families of the high society. Family legacies and conservation efforts by descendants of these early dancers helped preserve this early dress style in later generations.
Over the 20th century, while folkloric bomba ensembles maintained the tradition of the high collar, puffy sleeves, and long flowing bottom skirt, and elders conserved the use of the long skirts, petticoats, and head tie, practitioners began performing in regular street clothes starting in the 1950s, a trend which became dominant in the 1980s. More recently, the usage of the petticoat has been dropped entirely, and a bomba skirt can be worn on top of regular street clothing for all genders. Both emphasize and break stereotypical gender roles in the Bomba dance; the Bomba skirt continues to be a tool of self-expression, allowing each to dance their truth! This exhibit, presented by Bombazo Wear, was conceived by Puerto Rican designers and mother and daughter Milteri Tucker Concepción and Dr. Margarita Tucker Concepción in collaboration in Chicago with the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture.
Bombazo Wear Bomba Caribbean Skirt® is the first Bomba and Caribbean skirts brand in Puerto Rico and the United States. All skirts and attire are handmade and designed by both Milteri and Margarita.