From Olive-Green to the Guayabera / Iván García

“Until 1959, I went to the bank where I worked in a suit, collar and tie. But when the bearded ones came, it was frowned upon to walk around in a suit, because it was a “bourgeoise custom,” says Jesus, 77, who graduated as a public accountant from the defunct Professional School of Commerce in Havana.

In the ‘60s, the Revolutionary ranks divided themselves into two ideological camps: pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese. But the predominate dress was the Mao look: workers, employees and managers with shirts and work pants, rough cotton, in greys, made in Cuba. “It was warm clothing, but it went with the Russian boots,” remembers Ernesto, 65, a retired worker.

Carlos, 51, a former resident of the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora, doesn’t want to remember the Russian boots. “I put them on when I was awarded a scholarship, but they were crap, they hurt my feet like crazy. You know what we did? We took out the insoles and got them wet, some with water, other’s preferred to pee on them saying it made them softer. The next step was to hammer on them to get the fat out and put them in the sun.”

After Fidel Castro took a tour through the African countries, in 1972, the safari look became all the rage with the men. Nothing to do with anything you would use to go hunting. The safari suits consisted of gabardine pants and a jacket, in ugly boring colors. The jacket had four pockets and the sleeves could be short or long. The leaders tended to wear them at official events and receptions, but also journalists, lawyers, and other professionals adopted the safari suit.

The suit ended up an anachronism. In the end, when someone put one on — usually out-dated, even from before 1959 — people asked if he was going to get married or to get a passport photo taken. The job of tailor is one that almost disappeared after the Revolution.

The television announcers and presenters wear suits and ties, rarely fashionable. And even Fidel and Raul Castro appeared in suits at national events and on trips abroad. And theirs were well cut and designed. And with nice ties.

Since October 6, 2010, a decree signed by Chancellor Bruno Rodriguez establishes the guayabera as “official dress,” compulsory for diplomatic or state ceremonies. Men wear white guayaberas with long sleeves, while women can wear them in any color, in the form of blouses, or long, like a dress.

Although historians cannot agree on its parentage and date of birth, everything seems to point to the fact that the guayabera is a garment one hundred percent Cuban.

It arose in Sancti Spiritus, the sixth town founded by Diego Velázquez, and its creators could have been a potter José Pérez Rodríguez and the seamstress Encarnación Núñez García, a married couple from their native Granada who settled in that region in the early 18th century.

As the story goes, at that time the fabric received from Spain was not adapted to the hot climate of the island. And this couple from Andalusia had asked for some linen, with which Encarnacion styled a wide and comfortable shirt for her husband, with four front pockets to wear over pants.
Nor is their clarity with respect to the name, which could be derived from the word for guava, guayaba, one of the most popular fruits on the island, or it could be from Yayabo, the main river in Sancti Spiritus, because at some point it was called a yayabera.

Anecdotes aside, Cubans have always liked the guayabera and it is in popular use in Mexico, Panama, Colombia and the Philippines. In Cuba it was disappearing from shops available to the public. But it never ceased to be produced and sold in hard-currency stores.

The main brand of the Cuban guayabera is the Criolla. They are made in a workshop located in Old Havana, with a capacity of 100 thousand pieces per year, among them the exclusive Cohiba and Vega Robaina, which are exported to Italy, India and other countries. In Sancti Spiritus there is a Guayabera Museum, which displays examples used by Castro, Gabriel García Márquez and Hugo Chavez, among others.

Mario, an 80-year-old retiree, disagrees with the decree of the foreign minister. “My friend, the guayabera does not belong to any government, it belongs to all Cubans. It’s a shirt that can be worn daily or on special occasions, whatever style and color you prefer. We must not impose it on anyone, least of all by law. Look at this guayabera, you know where it’s from? Miami, my brother brought to me. It is pure linen, it cost $45. Those who have left, they have maintained the tradition.”

Of Mario, of course, his neighbors would say he is “en-guayabera-ed.”

November 5, 2010