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Posted May 23, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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HAVANA—Dozens of 1960s-era sewing machines hum in the room off a cobblestone street in Old Havana, the drone mixing with strains of salsa music and the chatter of elderly women at work.

Hunched over their tables, seamstresses twist and shape long strips of linen and cotton while a manager shouts out orders and keeps watch as they sew and stitch a tropical shirt that is a symbol of Cuban pride.
The guayabera—the boxy, pleated shirt known for comfort and coolness—is experiencing a revival in the tattered workshops of Cuban fashion designers and state-run clothiers.

Guayaberas have gone mainstream in the United States and Europe. Perry Ellis has introduced a line, so has the trendy store Urban Outfitters. Even Land’s End sells them.

The shirt is ubiquitous in tropical Latin American countries, but Cubans argue it originated on this island. The loose-fitting shirts are as Cuban as rum and cigars: Fidel Castro’s bodyguards often sport guayaberas, most Cuban men own at least one and the shirts remain the dress of choice for any formal occasion.

Now Cuban designers are dreaming of going global, first targeting the growing number of tourists to the island, with the eventual goal of penetrating markets abroad. Washington’s four-decade-old trade embargo shuts off the potentially lucrative U.S. market for now.

Linen and cotton guayaberas, ranging from $25 to $100 US, hang for sale at hotel gift shops alongside portraits of revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara and compact discs of salsa. There’s even a twist on the classic: guayabera dresses and shirts for women.

Designer Nancy Pelegrin, who sews handmade guayaberas at her simple Havana home, says she was struck by the interest from foreigners, many of them Americans, Germans and Mexicans.

“They are just ‘loco’ for them,” she says. “It’s a classic look with an added plus: It can help hide some of those undesired shapes of your figure.”

Worn untucked, the guayabera is about comfort. Usually lightweight, it has clean lines and a four-pocket front with decorative embroidery and a flat collar.

Gisele Vivier, a 24-year-old tourist from Montepelier, France, fingers her way through white cotton guayabera shirts at the Quitrin shop.

She plunks down the cash for one, saying she is buying it for a fashion-conscious friend back home.

“They go with the retro look that’s big in Europe,” she says. “They’re totally hip. How can you come to Cuba and not buy one?”

Many high-profile visitors to the island have not been able to resist.

Ernest Hemingway donned a guayabera in the 1950s when he lived and wrote from the island. Jimmy Carter wore a crisp white one during his visit last year as the first former American president to tour the island since Castro came to power in 1959.

Paradoxically, as the guayabera garners fashion headlines abroad, its popularity appears to be waning at home. These days, most Cubans prefer T-shirts and knit shirts to beat the Caribbean heat, having all but abandoned the guayabera as daily casual wear.

“It’s seen more as the dress of older people,” says Martha Gonzalez, a 47-year-old sales clerk. “Ay! But I still can’t think of anything more elegant than a man in a crisp guayabera.”

The guayabera’s origins are disputed, but most Cubans say the shirt was first fashioned in central Cuba in the late 18th century.

According to lore, an affluent landowner from the countryside discovered a lightweight cotton material during a shopping trip in Havana. Returning home, he asked his wife to make a shirt with multiple pockets.

His workers copied the style, calling the shirt “yayabera” after the nearby Yayabo River. The name eventually became guayabera for the guayaba, or guava trees, that grew nearby.

Wearing guayaberas became a political statement during Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain in the late 1880s.

Today, Castro’s bodyguards are among the most visible Cubans wearing the white tropical shirts as their uniform. That, some Cubans say, may partially explain why the shirt has fallen out of favour at home.

“Some guys worry they might be confused with being one of the security guards,” says Martin Huesa, 32-year-old worker.

But retiree Oscar Martinez, 82, insists the guayabera’s look and appeal is timeless. He says he wears all four in his closet—the oldest of which is 15 years old.

“They ladies still love them,” he says with a grin.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 27, 2003 by I-zenzopn with 3 total posts

    The guayabera is indeed marking a mark abroad and even here in Africa especially here in my country in Zimbabwe,many people are putting on these shirts for special ocassions.
    In Zimbabwe we have many Cuban trained teachers and doctors from Cuban and these are the people who have brought this idea to this side of the world.
    Indians also have their own version of the guayabera,but it is not as appealing as la guayabera original de Cuba.
    I also had one myself ,but I gained weight and had to give it to my younger brother.A friend of mine who is a lecturer at the National Universirt of Science and Technology(NUST) in Zimbabwe puts on the shirt once in a while as well as quite a number of teachers at Mpopoma High School ,also in Bulawayo who were also trained in Cuba.
    I used to like safari suits but given a guayabera for a present would be a perfect gift for me considering the fact that the safari suit is now less fashionable.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on July 12, 2004 by barb

    its funny to me that guayaberas have become trendy in the mainstream u.s. culture.  my father, in california has been wearing them for as long as i can remember.    a few years ago i pulled some of his older, too small for him,  guayaberas out of his closet to wear.  i even got a gorgeous linen one,  not just the cotton/poly ones from jc penny and sears.  now its easier to find them in the northeast,  and there’ even big designers making them for women.  go figure!

  3. Follow up post #3 added on October 17, 2006 by Jorge Pineiro

    Dear company
    Please keep us in tyour files.
    http://www.guayawear.com/ men’s Guayaberas winter Clearence now!!!
    Great buys
    Jorge Pineiro
    5692 riverside dr
    sugar hill ga 30518

  4. Follow up post #4 added on October 18, 2006 by Zenzo Polite Ncube

    I have two guayaberas that I bought three months ago from a friend of mine at the Johannesburg University of Technology.It’s a very special shirt which for me does not only have a sentimental meaning but also makes me feel very special.I am not a formal dresser and the guayabera offers me an alternative attire option during our university graduation ceremonies.
    I have one with manga larga and one with short sleeves and look forward to buying more in the future.Right now since we are approaching the end of the year (2006), I just want to buy one for Xmas.
    This shirt is indeed a special type of shirt and it will continue to do so for the forseeable future.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on July 27, 2007 by razzer10

    For a great selection of Guayaberas and Havana’s go to http://www.fridayshirts.com

  6. Follow up post #6 added on December 03, 2007 by Alexis Martin

    Take a look at our line of guayabera shirts. At http://www.mycubanstore.com

  7. Follow up post #7 added on March 03, 2008 by Cristina

    All of the above stores are great suggestions, but I ordered a guayabera for my husband 4 days before Valentines Day from this website; I received it in 2 days, and paid nothing for shipping. I was impressed.

    They sell a lot more than just guayaberas.

    I bookmarked it at: http://www.cubanproducts.com

  8. Follow up post #8 added on July 07, 2011 by km

    Hi guys! Be careful with these guayabera stores. I had a really bad experience a few days ago. Check their return policy! I prefer the 365 days returns policy from this one: http://www.mycubanstore.com

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