The rickshaw driver lugs his fare through the streets of Havana and draws up to a nightclub. The portly tourist climbs out, sidestepping the shadowy figure with the bulging pockets who's selling Cohibas--"cheap." The trim Lothario who watches the door leers suggestively before ushering the visitor in. Four very different denizens of the Cuban night, they have one common denominator: they all wear guayabera shirts.
Made of light cotton to weather tropical heat, draped to hide any figure flaw--like the beginning of a belly--outfitted with enough pockets to stow robustos for a small shop, yet possessed of all the sex appeal any Latin peacock could want, the guayabera is Cuba's sublime all-purpose gift to menswear. It's casually elegant, perfect for either an early evening mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, a sunset stroll along the Malecón, or a glamorous showgirl revue at the Tropicana. Short-sleeved or long, it vaunts machismo, with the accent heavy on sexy Latin. If the United States lifts commercial sanctions against Cuba, one of the island's resources in highest demand will undoubtedly be the original guayabera, the traditional Cubanisimo garment that fills the needs of summertime dressing with the elegance of a jacket and the comfort of, well, a shirt.
"The guayabera shirt is a symbol of masculine elegance in the Latin American culture," says designer John Bartlett, who returns to the venerated silhouette every few seasons and has even made a version in suede. "To me, it's a cultural icon and is one of the only pieces of men's clothing that carries such meaning. No one shirt is the same and each one has a lot of personality as seen through all of the embroidery and handwork."
John Fowler, the vice president who oversees men's fashion for Federated Merchandising Group, concurs. "Guayaberas are male hormone-inspired sportswear pieces. There's a trend for women to be more feminine and a corresponding trend for men to be more masculine. We've certainly explored all male icons, from athletic wear to cargo pants. But the whole Latin culture has gone unexplored."
Although both Cubans and Mexicans take pride in calling the guayabera their own, the four-pocket, straight-bottom shirt with two panels of eight to 10 rows of tucking, or fancy embroidery, down each side of the front was created in Central Cuba more than two hundred years ago. Many exquisite renditions are Mexican-made; others hail from Colombia or the Caribbean. In the States, Miami is the primary spot for guayabera making.
The legend of the guayabera's birth is multifaceted. One tale has it that the shirt was first conceived by a well-to-do landowner who fell in love with a lightweight cotton material called batista when shopping for provisions in Havana. He asked his nimble-fingered wife to sew a shirt with multiple pockets to carry items he needed as he rode the land to supervise his workers. The workers and others from nearby farms soon copied the style. As this story goes--and it is the one most accepted by lexicographic historians--the shirt was called a yayabera after the nearby Yayabo River. The name then degenerated into "guayabera" for the guayaba, or guava trees, under which workers would sit for lunch to avoid the strong midday Cuban sun.
According to Cuban guayabera designer Ramone Puig, another legend has cattle farmer Jose Gonzales and his wife, Encarnaciou Lopez, starting the tradition in the village of Sancti Spíritus, Cuba with a packet of fabric sent from their families in Sevilla, Spain. Gonzales apparently requested a pair of shirts "that would be worn out, but not like a blouse, with four pockets, two on top and two on the bottom, the bottom ones bigger, because in one I have to carry the tobacco, the other one is for matches, the top one is for chewing gum and the other one is for pens and pencils." Supposedly, Gonzales asked for buttons on the pockets, so he wouldn't lose anything, and long sleeves that buttoned as well. The people of the town admired the design, and soon all the peasant workers were sporting the style.
Puig escaped to Miami during the third mass Cuban exodus, in 1968, as he claims, "without scissors, measurement or money." Today, Puig is the head of La Casa de Guayabera on Miami's Eighth Street, designing handmade custom, or couture, Cuban-style guayaberas in Swiss cotton or English linens that retail from $180 to $250. (More common guayaberas retail anywhere from $14.99 to $80, depending on fabric and intricacy of work in the panels).
Puig, who created a Latin look for such luminaries as former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and designed nine such shirts for actor Robert Duvall, says that when the Spanish began settling in Cuba in greater numbers, in the eighteenth century, "because of the tropical climate, the heat and humidity of Cuba, it was really hard for the colonials to wear wool garments. In time, the caballeros, or gentlemen, started requesting garments in linen fabrics imported from Ireland for its high quality and refreshing comfort."
However, it wasn't until 1948 that the guayabera made it to the Presidential Palace in Havana. Dr. Carlos Prío Socarrás, the president-elect, had campaigned fiercely, always wearing a guayabera among the populace. He took the silhouette into the Palacio, and it became a common substitute for a suit and tie, often worn in the evenings with a bow tie. (The president's sartorial style, alas, did not keep him from being unseated in a Batista coup four years later.)
Today, the guayabera is a great equalizer; witness the same style that sheaths old men playing chess or cards outside the bodegas on New York City's Lower East Side, as well as the young, alternative crowd that wears it clubbing for its coolness factor. Radford Brown, owner of the Manhattan vintage retail boutique Cherry, tracks down guayaberas all over the nation. "I've seen the really old ones that are really intricate, as well as the Dacron polyester ones that are just fun. I always think of the old men in south Florida wearing their guayaberas with their loud plaid shorts, straw hats and black socks."
Like Puig, Cuban-born George Feldenkreis, the chairman and chief executive officer of Supreme International, also relocated to Miami, at age 25, just two months before the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle. "Our father was a manufacturer's representative," recalls Feldenkreis. "I was a lawyer before the revolution. Once here, my brother and I started this business, manufacturing in the Orient. The guayabera in Havana was a very popular shirt. I remember my father wore one almost every day--he carried a lot of papers and notes in his pockets, some of them going back four to five years. That's why people wore them, for that. There are also songs about the guayabera." Here, he croons into the phone, "'I want a hat of straw and a flag; I want a guayabera and I want a song to dance with.' That's an old Cuban song. This shirt is the essence of Cuban culture," he laughs, a bit wickedly. "Of course, maybe you want a good Cuban girl next to you as well...."
The guayabera can be as dressy as one wants. "They are the perfect evening shirt in these more informal times," observes Bartlett, who says he has many original guayaberas that he wears and uses as inspiration when reinterpreting his own. "They are great, elegant pieces that look good on men of any age. I love seeing the old Cuban guys playing cards on the hot summer streets in the original guayaberas. They are the original peacocks!"
Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance fashion feature writer who lives in New York City.