History of the Poncho in Hollywood

From the earliest days of live theater all the way to present block-busting successes, Hollywood has been in love with the Mexican poncho.  The special place of the poncho in Hollywood is due, no doubt, to California’s intertwined history with Mexico and the rich cultural melting pot that has given Hollywood its global appeal. Mexican ponchos are commonly used in Hollywood costumes of all kinds – and they have been showcased in dozens of movies and television shows. The following list of movies and television shows is incomplete, but it still gives the reader an idea of the sheer variety of ponchos that have festooned famous actors throughout time.

The “Old” Westerns

Often considered the glory days of American cinema, the 1950s were an era of unprecedented growth in Hollywood thanks to the global appeal of the American Western. Despite the fact that old Western movies didn’t necessarily stay true to the reality of life on the American frontier, they reinforced the “ideals” of the American west, including independence and justice.  In “My Darling Clementine” Henry Fonda wears a Mexican-style poncho as a disguise during the movie – and even though the movie was in black-and-white, the poncho still steals the screen with its bright patterns.  Another classic Western with a classic wardrobe was “The Big Country” – a famous Charlton Heston movie that took place amidst feuding cowboys that often wore ponchos over their regular outerwear.

Mexican ponchos in the old western movies were relatively common – as they were still a very important part of the wardrobe in the American west during the 1940s and 1950s, even more so when WWII was draining the cotton supplies from the rest of the country and wool ponchos started to be used more and more as the outerwear of choice for ranchers.

New Westerns

In the 1970s, the attitude around Westerns changed a great deal.  Old westerns were known for their campiness and their close adherence to familiar tropes where the good guy always triumphed over evil, but the new western movies often included darker characters with haunted pasts and questionable motivations. The real “hero” of the new western era was Clint Eastwood – a man who’s chiseled jawline and gruff personality came to define the entire genre during his career.

Clint Eastwood wore one of the most famous ponchos in Hollywood history – a dark green poncho with white patterns across the top that he wore in “A Fistful of Dollars”.  During this spaghetti western series, Eastwood cemented himself as the most “authentic” of the western actors – and the poncho added authenticity and ruggedness to his wardrobe.  Much like Clint Eastwood himself, ponchos are durable and long-lasting.

Famous non-Western movies

The poncho really got its traction (and its Hollywood credibility) from the Western movies that gave it worldwide fame, but many other movies have incorporated Mexican ponchos to add authenticity to the atmosphere and setting of the film.

The original Star Wars trilogy is undoubtedly the most famous movie series in the world, and for good reason.  The scope of the original Star Wars movies was breathtaking for the time, spanning the galaxy between the snowy planet of Hoth and the desert Tatooine.  Even though Luke Skywalker was a daring commander and a masterful pilot, he was not immune from the temperature extremes of these different worlds – so his wardrobe had to change to fit all sorts of scenarios. On Tatooine, Skywalker wore a wool poncho very similar to our Mexican ponchos to keep the hot sun of the Tatooine desert off his back. Just like the frontier settlers in the American west wore thick ponchos to keep them cool during hot days of work, the settlers of Tatooine relied on this time-tested design for rugged comfort and durability in the desert sun.

Rambo used a version of the poncho when he stalked the jungles in “First Blood” to keep himself dry and hidden in the thick growth of the forest.  Ponchos are used in many different military applications as rain gear and camouflage, since they have a single unbroken surface they are far easier to waterproof and to hide people and equipment under.

This site has already covered the innovative poncho that was worn by Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies – a poncho that simultaneously was a throw back to western culture while also including little atomic symbols as a tribute to the energy/science that was used to make it into the past in the first place.  The Back to the Future poncho is a perfect fusion of the modern and the traditional, made with the finest wool rather than dyed fabric that is used by many other companies.

In the Walking Dead television series, Daryl Dixon stalks the post-apocalyptic wasteland in a poncho that he made himself by stitching two horse blankets together.  This tough woolen poncho keeps him warm when the temperatures drop at night, and it provides a splash of color in the dreary wasteland to keep everyone’s’ spirits up.  Ponchos are ideal for zombie hunters – since they are tough enough to withstand prolonged abuse while allowing the wearer total freedom of movement for zombie hunting or fleeing.

One of the most unique ponchos every worn in Hollywood films was this incredible crochet poncho that Tom Hanks donned in Cloud Atlas. This crocheted poncho was clearly handmade, and it added a whimsical look to the village that really set the whole movie on a new level. Interestingly, the costume designer for Cloud Atlas actually took to the internet to find an artist that was talented enough to create this crocheted poncho – so don’t expect to purchase replicas any time soon!

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