The Iconic Cuban Guayabera
By Elizabeth Borrero, Photos: Prensa Latina
The distinctive Cuban guayabera is much more than a garment worn at official events and a cool linen shirt suitable for Cuba’s year round high temperatures. Its origins, heritage and popularity have made it a global symbol of traditional Cuba. Unlike more common shirts designs, the bottom of a traditional guayabera has slits on two sides and four buttons. It has two vertical strips of sewn pleats that run along the length of its front and three more that run along its back. Cuban journalist and researcher Ciro Bianchi records that with the passing of time, the guayabera underwent some changes.
There was a time, for instance, when the back tapered into a triangular point and with its three pleated strips, it resembled Cuba’s national flag. Later, the back panel tapered into three points with three strips of pleats on a shirt that characteristically had twenty seven buttons in all.
The guayabera has been the garment of choice among renowned personalities throughout Cuba’s recent history. José Miguel Gómez , the Sancti Spíritus born president of the Republic from 1909 to 1913 enhanced the guayabera’s popularity in the Cuban capital as did his peer Ramón Grau San Martín, who wore his to the Presidential Palace. Questions about the origin of the guayabera continue to arise and according to Cuban fashion designer María Elena Molinet, the guayabera “is not the product of any one person alone and the exact moment that it became the elegant, cool, well starched and neatly ironed white piece of clothing that could be worn without a tie, remains undetermined.”
The most popular creation myth says that back in 1709 in the village of Yayabo in Sancti Spíritus province, an Andalusian immigrant named José Pérez Rodríguez asked his beloved wife Encarnación Núñez, to make him a shirt with pockets large enough to carry his cigars and tools to work.
It is believed that what resulted was the genesis of the now famous guayabera shirt.
Sancti Spíritus is the city most associated with the history and heritage of the shirt in both Cuba and Latin America. Even though no documentary evidence exists to endorse this central Cuban city’s claim to being where this particular piece of clothing originates, it is certain that no other place in Cuba has such a comprehensive record of its lineage.
The Guayabera House museum was founded here in 2012 to preserve and promote the history of the shirt and to house an important collection donated by illustrious personalities such as Fidel and Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, ballerina Alicia Alonso, writers Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Astu-rias, and former presidents Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa.
The museum is situated on the banks of the Yayabo river in the city’s historical center and its comprehensive catalogue includes more than two hundred and fifty examples for the public to appreciate.
Carlo Figueroa, who leads the project, told CubaPlus that the collection also includes guayaberas worn by Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Five Cuban heroes who were imprisoned in U.S. jails and U.S. actor and activist Danny Glover.
Figueroa explained that the project pays tribute to aspects of Cuban culture and society through the guayabera, which in 2010 was the garment designated to be worn at Cuban State and government diplomatic ceremonies and as a global symbol of the nation’s textiles.
This was confirmed in an Official Gazette of the Republic of the same year, which described the guayabera as an elegant and comfortable article of clothing for a tropical climate and “one of the most authentic and legitimate expressions of Cuban identity.”