Guayabera, The Beloved National Garment

Guayabera, The Beloved National Garment

A guayabera is a typical Cuban shirt, at once a distinctive national garment and a link between Cuba, the Caribbean and the rest of the world. Narrator Lisandro Otero used to say that a guayabera, which becomes more popular every summer, is a symbol of carefree wear, of a festive spirit and laid-back manner, while at the same time dignifying informality and simplifying formal events. Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén assured us that it was the garment best suited to the way we perspire.

Guayabera, The Beloved National GarmentMany countries dispute the birthplace of the guayabera, although the word itself has a Cuban origin and in many nations in Latin America it is known either as a guayabera, a Cuban shirt or a habanera, reaffirming its Cuban character. However, it is difficult to pinpoint its origins in Cuba.

Although one legend has it that the name guayabera comes from a poor rural Cuban seamstress who sewed large pockets in her husband's shirts to carry guava (guayabas) from the field, 19th century Cuban farmers did not wear it.

Guayabera may likely have originated from the word yayabero, a person who lived near the Yayabo River in central Cuba, and indeed such garments were early seen in Sancti Spíritus. By the second half of the 19th century, this shirt became typical everyday wear for rich landowners, but it was not fashionable in the cities. The soldiers of the Army of Independence did not wear it either. Farmers and soldiers wore the chamarreta, a shirt similar to a guayabera, with shirttails and narrow sleeves.

We do not know exactly who and when began sewing the details that make a shirt a guayabera: putting in two or four patch pockets and two vertical rows of fine, tiny pleats close together, doubling up the hems and lower openings and making the first tapering points in the front and back yokes. Designer María Elena Molinet maintains that the original guayabera was not the work of one person, but it did become an elegant piece of clothing, fresh, white, starched and ironed, which could be worn without a tie. It migrated to Mexico where it became a wedding shirt.

The first mention of the guayabera in literature was in the 1893 Leonela, a novel by Nicolás Heredia that told a story taking place before 1868. The Cuban expression guayabera became legitimized in 1921 when Constantino Suárez included it in his Vocabulario cubano (Cuban Vocabulary).

In the late 19th century the guayabera fell into decline. Spanish journalist Eva Canel, who toured the island from end to end in the early years of the 20th century, notes and laments its absence. It made a comeback after 1920, when tailors, shirt makers and seamstresses in Sancti Spíritus and Zaza del Medio, also in the central part of the country, gave new life to the classic guayabera.

In its new version, it gained the love of the people in the rest of the country, but found it difficult to conquer Havana until after the overthrow of Machado's dicttorship (1933) when local customs experienced a certain modification and the guayabera asserted its presence in the capital. It became the typical national garment after 1940 and even entered the Presidential Palace with President Grau San Martín in 1944.

Guayabera, The Beloved National GarmentThe guayabera was displayed in the shop windows of only the best stores replacing any other style of men's wear, something with no historical or traditional antecedents, radically changing dress styles to the point that talk began about the abuse of wearing guayaberas. But no one fought it head on. It was an expensive piece, made only by experienced seamstresses of the finest linen. It was made to measure and the need to trust only reliable people with the ironing made the cost even higher.

In the late 1950s the guayabera began to be made of cotton and industrial manufacturing helped to make it less expensive. No longer only white, the sleeves were not always long, and paste often replaced the mother-of-pearl buttons.

After the triumph of the 1959 Revolution it again almost disappeared. For some, it was a reminder of other times, of cheap politics and business-as-usual.

It began to reappear gradually in the 70s as a much cheaper garment worn mostly by men over 50. However in recent years, with a renaissance of retro clothing, especially in the United States, women and younger men have begun to wear them, finding them appropriate for office wear in hot weather.

The guayabera has spread into the Caribbean and Latin America as well as to England, Zimbabwe and even to Cannes and Marbella, Viareggio and Monaco and other chic summer places. Cuban designers include them in their collections for both genders with new designs and previously unthought-of of colours. It is far from ready to retire.