Style: Get back under the blankets: Tamsin Blanchard welcomes the return of the classic poncho, this time from its South American homeland

The poncho, that simple strip of blanket with a head-hole and pompons, last made a big impact in the early Seventies, on the early-morning flights from Torremolinos. Now it has returned to Britain, minus pompons, and is being worn as an alternative to the coat.

This time the blanket has reached us, not via holidays on the Costa del Sol, but from its native South America. It follows in the wake of the Mexican serape, which is sold in department stores everywhere and slung across the shoulders of teenagers and businesswomen alike. The poncho may not be quite so universally worn this winter, but in 1994, who knows?

December's Sky magazine advises us to 'choose your ethnic mix carefully, and avoid ponchos at all costs', but I suspect that this old design classic has not yet fulfilled its potential.

Christian Lacroix made ponchos chic this winter for ladies who lunch, and in New York, Anna Sui predicts that woollen hats and Andean knits will be the ultimate in hip summer dressing. Even Comme des Garcons hinted at the poncho this winter, with alpaca blanket dresses.

The poncho is a native of the Andean countries of South America, stretching from Colombia to Chile. Jane Fini, a partner at Tumi, the Latin American specialist shop, says: 'In the Andes, you squat down in your poncho and wrap it around you like your own little tent. If you have a hat, too, it's the best protection you can get.'

On a slightly less practical note, the stylist Naomi Smith says: 'Ponchos are like little dresses - you can just pull on your long boots with them.'

Ponchos have been selling steadily at Tumi for the past 14 years. The one woven from Ecuadorean sheeps' wool, shown in our picture, is the most popular: it is thick and warm, and untreated pure wool still has enough lanolin and grease to keep the poncho showerproof.

Tumi stocks seven different styles at the moment, all hand- made by local artisans. The most expensive is made of alpaca from Bolivia at pounds 59.50, and there is also the capa, which is shorter and worn as a cape. The London shop alone is currently selling about 20 ponchos each week.

Although the poncho is specific to the Andes, similar garments are worn in other parts of Latin America. In Guatemala, there is the huipil, made of two rectangles of cotton joined together, with a hole in the middle for the wearer's head. At the Guatemala Indian Centre in London, they cost up to pounds 150 and are mainly bought by collectors; 2,000-year-old statuettes wearing similar garments have been found in Central America.

As with most forms of dress, the poncho has its own hierarchical levels of status. Although today some are mass- produced in factories, others are still handmade, by women, to local patterns. Ceremonial ponchos can cost up to pounds 200. The best are made from alpaca; then comes llama, then sheep. It can take weeks, often months, to weave one. Patterns are intricate and attractive. Some end up in museums, others are passed down through generations of families and worn for decades.

The poncho is a thoroughly practical garment that, unlike some coats, can be worn over bulky jumpers without making the wearer feel restricted. Professor William Rowe from the Centre for Latin American Cultural Studies at King's College, London, says: 'A really good poncho is so thickly woven you can survive a rainstorm, go walking, riding, and then sleep in it.

'If I was going up above the snow line, I'd wear one. It's what you need, otherwise you're in real danger.'

There have been times, however, when the poncho itself has been in danger: as recently as 1983, ponchos were forbidden in some volatile areas of South America with the excuse that people might be hiding machine-guns under them.

Wool Ecuadorean Inca poncho, pounds 49.50 from Tumi, 23-24 Chalk Farm Road, NW1; 8-9 New Bond Street Place, Bath; 32 Park Street, Bristol; 1-2 Little Claringdon Street, Oxford.

Crochet hat, from pounds 6.95 from Tumi, as above.

Wool jumper, pounds 65, from Komodo, Unit 11, Thomas Neal Shopping Centre, 2-22 Shorts Gardens, WC2; The Dispensary, 9 Newburgh Street, W1; Ichi Ni-San, 26 Bell Street, Merchant City, Glasgow.

Black long riding boots, pounds 170, by Freelance, from Plum Line, Neal Street, WC2; inquiries 071-602 2866.

Brown opaque tights by Aristoc, from department stores.

The Guatemala Indian Centre and craft shop is at 94a Wandsworth Bridge Road, SW6 2TF (071-371 5291).

(Photograph omitted)

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