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Posted May 19, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By KEVIN GRAY | Associated Press

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.

But Cuba made them famous. 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 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 $25 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 saleswoman. “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 people agree 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, which 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 favor at home.

“Some guys worry they might be confused with being one of the security guards,” says Martin Huesa, a 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.

“The ladies still love them,” he says with a grin. “And nothing makes you look better.”

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 18, 2004 by david cuadra

    I am latin, and my parents have for long begged that I wear a guayabera.  I finally am at an age to appreciate this unique sytle and elegance in a shirt.  They really do make you look your best.  I just want to know how one is able to distinguish between a really good shirt and an ok one.

  2. Follow up post #2 added on June 13, 2004 by seir

    Please tell me, is there any way I can get my hands on a guayabera made in Cuba? How is one supose to be able to tell a quality Guayabera from just any regular one?

  3. Follow up post #3 added on August 17, 2004 by Alexis Martin

    Are you looking for a guayabera shirt? Visit Mycubanstore.com and get your guayabera today.


  4. Follow up post #4 added on August 28, 2004 by mandy eustaquio

    i’m from the philippines. my boyfriend & i saw this old guy wearing a guayabera—we didn’t know what it was called at that time. we didn’t waste any time buying linen & bringing it to his tailor to have it made. we were describing this cuban or south american looking shirt & weren’t we so lucky—there was a drawing left by another customer. and since then, he’ had other guayaberas made. this guayabera is very similar to our own short-sleeved “barong tagalog”.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on October 17, 2004 by Albert Strauss

    We are a retail store in Tampa, Florida looking for wholesaler, manufacturer or importer of guayabera shirts. Please email me with your company information.

  6. Follow up post #6 added on October 18, 2004 by alexis@mycubanstore.com

    Dear David,

    The guayaberas are been made now days from different materials and in different countries. If you want a good looking piece at a cheap price I will recommend the poly/cotton styles.

    For a top of the line guayabera I recommend you our 100% Pima Cotton and our 100% Linen Guayaberas which are made in Mexico.
    These guayaberas we sell are pre-cut in Miami by Cubans with a strong family tradition on the manufacturing of the guayabera and then they are sent to Mexico to get assemble. 

    Here are some links for our 100% pima Cotton Guayaberas and our 100% Linen Guayaberas:


    The 100% Irish Linen is our best guayabera ever you can find them here:


    You will be satisfied with our guayaberas for sure but in any case Mycubanstore.com offers you a 30 days return policy.


  7. Follow up post #7 added on November 29, 2004 by Lorena

    Though the stories are cute, the Guayabera is from Merida, Yucatan. These shirts were embellished by the Filipinos during the Spanish trade routes—this is where they became more elaborate than they had been originally. Their authentic fabric is Manta. Though Cuba may trace them to the 1880’ or so, they’re traced hundreds of years prior in Mexico.

  8. Follow up post #8 added on June 10, 2008 by Rafael Contreras Jr

    There are continuous essays on the origin of the guayaberas,whether they were created in Mexico or in Cuba. I personally feel they could have come from either Yucatan,Mexico or from western Cuba. Just look at a map and you will see that the western tip of Cuba is only 223 miles from Yucatan.Back in the 1800’s and before there was a lot of trade between Cuba and Yucatan.The people on both shores were industrious and the climates are identical,thus dictating the creation of the cool and elegant guaybera. I personally know Cuban families that had Yucatecan origins and had family on both shores. So the important thing is that the guyabera was actually created not disputing where it came from.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on July 21, 2009 by Tammy Tims

    If you are planning your wedding and the theme is Mexican, Cuban or any other Latin tradition, our custom embroidered guayabera shirts can be coordinated to match the wedding colors and we have many embroidery designs to match your theme.  Our Guayabera shirts are the authentic 100% cotton item - made in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico!!

    Please feel free to ask if you have any questions.  We also custom create with linen fabrics or other blends in your custom fabric color choice.

    visit http://www.Amor-y-Vida.com for more information.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on November 11, 2009 by Enrique

    Although embraced by many Latinos including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans and so forth, there is no doubt that the guayaberas is a Cuban creation. Between the 1920s and the 1950s there was a big cultural exchange between Cuba and Mexico. Cubans adapted corn based tamales, something that most other carribean Latinos do not eat and Mexicans adapted the guayabera. To this day, Cubans eat tamales and well, Mexicans try to claim the guayabera!

  11. Follow up post #11 added on July 20, 2011 by Dania

    If you are looking for guayaberas for boys or infants we have them. Visit our site at http://www.ChristeningWardrobe.com

  12. Follow up post #12 added on July 20, 2011 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Baby guayaberas. How cute!

    Cuba consulting services

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