KEVIN GRAY | AP
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.