The Real History of Pamplona's Red and White Outfits

The Real History of Pamplona's Red and White Outfits

The Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona, Spain is recognized around the world for the red and white outfits worn by revelers. The outfits unite the city during July's festival season: they symbolize participation in the fiesta, and they make a statement that social standings do not exist or matter during Los sanfermines

But how did this tradition start?

Unfortunately, the origins of wearing white clothes and a red scarf and sash in Pamplona are not completely clear. There are several myths that have been perpetuated about this iconic "uniform," and the reality is that the custom has likely evolved from a gradual combination of several different influences. What is clear in evidence from paintings, photographs, and written descriptions is that both of these traditions (wearing white and wearing red) developed independently of each other between around 1880-1910, before becoming widespread by around the 1930s and becoming nearly universal at the festival by the 1970s and 1980s.

The White Outfits

The tradition of wearing white outfits during the San Fermín festival evolved from the long white smocks historically worn by Basque peasants. These baggy white tunics were first invented as a style of women's underwear and sleepwear in the Middle Ages. Eventually, however, both men and women started using these garments as an outside layer: members of the working-class wishing to protect their nicer clothes would put a smock on over their outfits during potentially messy activities. By the 19th-century, these smocks (called blouses and sometimes "guardapolvos" - literally "dust protectors") were used by members of Navarra's working-class in a wide range of professions: butchers, farmers, shepherds, painters, sculptors, fishers, and others were known to wear these long tunics during their work. Although these smocks could come in any color, white was the cheapest and most widely available fabric color.

A crowd wearing tunics gathers to see one of the first automobiles in Pamplona. Early 20th century. Courtesy of Javier Muru.

By the end of the 19th-century, some lower-class workers wore these long white smocks to protect their clothes from the chaos of Los sanfermines. Their tunics protected their "real" clothes underneath in case they tripped during the bull run or got splashed by sangria from wine-skins during the bullfights. In the photograph below from ~1920, one such tunic can be seen in the foreground.

Encierro on Mercaderes in ~1920. Photo courtesy of Elena Etxegoyen.

These long white smocks are also featured on many of the early posters of the San Fermín festival, including these posters from 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1917.


Between 1900-1930, these smocks gradually became a symbol of Pamplona and the San Fermín festival. Although the vast majority of people still wore suits, dresses, and other (non-white) clothes, white smocks of different cuts and styles were gaining popularity throughout this period as part of working-class revelers' San Fermín festival attire. Some revelers who wanted to participate in the festive trend chose to wear all-white pants and an all-white shirt instead, clearly referencing the long white smocks.

"Las blusas blancas." Photograph by José Roldán of peña members in Pamplona's Plaza del Castillo (July 1914)

Records suggests that some of the earliest supporters of this trend were the city's musicians, including drummers and "txistularis," or Basque flute players. These musicians had already worn white shirts with colorful pañuelo scarves and faja sashes since at least the early-20th century, independently of the smock trend. As all-white outfits developed into symbol of the San Fermín festival, musicians added white pants to their customary outfits. By the 1920s, outfits that were not red-and-white were still the norm during the festival, but red and white had become an unmistakable symbol of participation in Los sanfermines.

The posters below show Pamplona's musicians in 1900, 1908, and 1921, and they highlight the evolution of the outfits of Pamplona's musicians during this time period.



Then, in 1929, a working-class Pamplona social club called "Peña La Veleta" contributed to the spread of this tradition by encouraging their club members to wear all white, referencing the white smocks historically worn by many members of the working-class. The decision to dress alike helped to create a sense of camaraderie and festiveness among members of the social club, but it was also, in part, a political statement.

La Veleta Peña. 1933.

La Veleta's working-class members were primarily, if not entirely, staunch socialists and supporters of the left-wing Republican Party, which championed democracy, secularism, equality, improved workers' rights, and liberalism. The Republican Party also celebrated regional autonomy, which was a major concern in the eastern region of Catalunya and the northern region of Navarra (home to Pamplona) given their unique languages and cultures. 

Wearing all-white symbolized La Veleta's support for the Republican party by highlighting an affiliation with the working-class and making a statement of equality, since all members wore the same thing. Notably, British author George Orwell writes in his book Homage to Catalonia that, in Barcelona in the 1930s, blue overalls were worn to represent support for the Republican Party; all-white outfits were Navarra's version of this nonverbal activism and defiance of rising fascist sentiment in Spain. In both regions, the chosen outfits represented the work clothes of the working-class.

La Veleta popularized this modern style of all-white pants and shirt (complete with a red scarf and red sash), and these outfits were featured in several San Fermín posters throughout the 1930s (the San Fermín festival was cancelled in 1937 and 1938 due to the Spanish Civil War). Thanks to La Veleta Peña and the ever-increasing anti-Francoist sentiment in Navarra during and after the Spanish Civil War, the white outfit had become a permanent symbol of the festival of San Fermín by the end of the 1930s.


Today, the custom of wearing white pants and a white shirt has become just about universal among participants at Los sanfermines. What was once a practical cover-up smock became a symbol of working-class revelry and rebellion alike, and it eventually created the traditional outfit that all festival-goers wear to celebrate the festival of San Fermín - regardless of age, gender, or social class. When you put on your white clothes at Los sanfermines this July, we hope you take a moment to remember the working-class Navarrans who helped make the festival what it is today.

The Red Scarves

A very common legend holds that the red scarves worn by revelers at the Running of the Bulls festival symbolize the martyrdom of Pamplona's patron saint, San Fermín, who was decapitated in the 3rd century. According to this legend, the red around the neck represents the blood of San Fermín. This is a nice, clean story (which is probably why the myth has spread so far!), but it's very unlikely to be true.

The handkerchief-scarf worn at the Running of the Bulls festival is called a pañuelo, and the tradition of wearing colorful pañuelos during Navarran festivals was popular long, long before red became the most common pañuelo color in Pamplona. According to this pamphlet by the Basque Cultural Institute, the custom of using pañuelos in Basque festivals dates back to around 1825, when pañuelos were introduced into several Basque social dances. During these dances, men and women would hold onto opposite corners of a handkerchief so that the dancers wouldn't touch, since touching outside of marriage was considered taboo at the time. You can still participate in these pañuelo social dances in the Plaza del Castillo at 9:00pm, every night of the festival.

By the late 1800s and early 1900s, pañuelos of different colors were worn in Pamplona and the surrounding villages for many different purposes:

Some people who travelled into Pamplona from other areas of Navarra wore scarves to represent their hometown or village, since almost every Navarran town and village developed its own unique style of pañuelo. For example, in the nearby Baztan valley, villagers typically wear plaid pañuelosCitizens in other Navarran towns typically wear bright blue pañuelos, or yellow pañuelos, or green pañuelos

Others revelers wore pañuelos that represented their peña, or social club. In the early-20th century, and still in Pamplona today, different social groups created their own colors and designs of pañuelos, and wearing these custom scarves symbolized one's membership in the club. 

Others chose to wear particular styles of pañuelos simply because they liked the color or design, or because it went with their outfit on a particular day.

If you look closely at the posters below, you'll see several examples of revelers wearing pañuelos of many different colors, such as yellow or blue.



These posters highlight that pañuelos were already a widespread tradition in Navarra, for decades if not centuries before red became the color of choice at the festival.

In other words, pañuelos did not have any religious significance in and of themselves, and there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that those who wore red (as opposed to any of the other pañuelo colors) did so in reference to San Fermín's martyrdom. Instead, pañuelos were identity-markers, used to highlight and celebrate one's regional identity, club membership, or personal preferences. 

So why is red so common today?

The answer most likely has to do with the fact that red is the main color of the Navarran flag. The modern flag of Navarra was designed in 1910, and it quickly became used as a symbol of the region. Since Pamplona is the capital city of Navarra, it is likely that red pañuelos became popular in the city as a symbol of one's Navarran identity.

It is likely because of the Navarran flag that the La Veleta Peña social group chose to use red pañuelos in the late-1920s and early-1930s to symbolize group membership, which is the decision that ultimately popularized red pañuelos as traditional San Fermín festival-wear. Members of La Veleta Peña embraced liberal Republican values, which included the belief that Navarra should be able to freely embrace and practice its own culture and language. This was a topic of fierce debate at the time, when Spain was on the cusp of the Spanish Civil War. During this period, the fascist General Francisco Franco - who led the opposing party - was championing the adoption of a singular Spanish national identity, and therefore he was promoting the elimination of the Navarran Basque culture in Spain. Wearing a red pañuelo would have symbolized pride in Navarra and resistance against Franco's vision of a monolithic Spanish identity.

Notably, another plausible theory is that the members of La Veleta Peña supported the Communist Party of Spain, which would have been very likely given their socialist working-class backgrounds. Many Spanish socialists in Navarra were also communists in the early 1930s, particularly since the Communist Party advocated for Basque independence. It is possible that the members of La Veleta Peña chose to wear red - the color of the communist flag - to emphasize their political ideology. 

Importantly, it is very unlikely that the red pañuelos have anything to do with Saint Fermín's martyrdom. The festival had been celebrated for hundreds of years before the early 19th century, when pañuelos of any color became a culturally significant accessory. Then, it took another hundred years for red pañuelos to become a popular pañuelo color in Pamplona. By this time, the true religious origins of the festival were long-since overshadowed by the festival's secular elements - especially its thrilling bull runs.

It is highly unlikely that people would actively choose to wear and popularize such a heavy symbol of religious martyrdom at a time when the religious elements of the festival had already taken a backseat. This is especially true because the movement towards wearing red pañuelos was led by the working-class, which would have been the most secular group in Spanish society. Instead, it is much more likely that the red evolved due to the combined influences of the Navarran flag and La Veleta's decision to wear red in celebration of Navarra or the Communist Party of Spain.

We hope this short history lesson was helpful! If you have any additional information or theories about the history of Pamplona's San Fermín festival-wear, we would love to hear them! Feel free to leave a comment below or send us an email. 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.