From the Taino cotton loincloths to the Chanel 2016 Show in Havana, dressing in Cuba has dramatically evolved in the last 500 years. However, traditionally drawn towards European and American styles, it has taken its time to adapt again to the island’s environment and weather. Furthermore, fashion in Cuba has suffered the influence of historic affairs; and the crucible of races and cultures that have shaped the island’s idiosyncrasy along its history, has also shaped the garments worn by its inhabitants.
The mild though often unstable climate of the Caribbean has set the tendency of its people to go light when it comes to clothing. As a matter of fact, the most primitive inhabitants of the Cuban archipelago, the Guanahatabey, wore almost nothing, while the most culturally advanced Ciboney and Taino, of Arawak stock, wore only cotton-woven loincloths and, in the case of women, short open skirts. All this changed abruptly when the first Spanish settlers began to colonize the region. The inherent puritanism of the Catholic Church dictated that the body should be fully covered, despite the high temperatures that dominate most of the year.
However, the pre-Baroque intricate garments worn by the first Spanish settlers soon proved unfitting for the country’s weather. Cotton and linen replaced wool and felt, and, as it happened with architecture, an inclination towards the more appropriate Andalusian styles overcame the dominant Castilian-court fashion. Furthermore, with the extermination of most of the Taino population –due to hard labor, despair, and European diseases—the introduction of African slaves brought also a tendency towards simpler, yet colorful and highly decorated garments. African patterns mingled with Andalusian, gypsy-like robes –mostly in the case of women– and the carnivalesque rumba dress, known as “Bata Cubana” was born.
Among the upper classes, however, the trend was more into European fashion, at least during the XVII, XVIII, and XIX centuries. French couture, along with Italian style, predominated in the country’s fancy ballrooms and elitist reunions. The ban upon non-Castilian settlers for the American colonies was lifted in the late 1700s, and the subsequent waves of Catalan, French and Italian immigrants brought a taste of Mediterranean exoticism.
It is during the XVIII century, however, that another piece of Cuban traditional garment supposedly appears. The cotton or linen shirt, known as Guayabera or Guayavera, consisting of an often white, pleated shirt with its iconic four pockets seems to be European in its origin –specifically Spanish– but in the New World it developed its typical shape. Based upon the traditional Spanish men’s undergarment, its complicated embroidery suited the shirt for special occasions, religious and folk festivals, weddings, etc. Closely related to the Mexican wedding shirt, the specific origin of the Guayabera is uncertain, though, and many legends and folk stories propose different possible explanations for its particular design.
The most plausible of these stories, however, explains both its name and birthplace. According to some, the origin of the Guayabera can be located in the area of Sancti Spiritus, in the former province of Las Villas, located in more or less the center of the island. In the mentioned town, a local museum exhibits very rare and old specimens of the shirt, together with more modern Guayaberas that have belonged to both local and nationwide personages. The museum itself is situated close to the town’s center, just by the river Yayabo putting an explanation of the name –Guayabera—which would have been originally called Yayabera –from the Yayabo River—but only after the name became meaningless for people abroad the province, it started confounding with its actual name due to the similarity with the word “guayaba” –guava. A legend even tells the shirt was designed in order to keep, in its pockets, as many guava fruits as possible.
Notwithstanding, the use of Guayabera spread across the country and, by the end of the XIX century, right after the Cuban Independence War, it had become, along with the Yarey straw hat, a national costume and a symbol of Cuban-ness worldwide. Nowadays, it may be seen, no matter the occasion, worn by government officials in State receptions or assemblies, by proud Cubans in national celebrations or family reunions, and/or by common people on their way to work.
Both the XX and XXI centuries have seen a decrease in the use of both the Guayabera and the Bata Cubana, aside from very special circumstances and/or picturesque representations. The upper classes and the youth have favored more western-like American fashion, even after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. During the years of Soviet influence in the island, between 1961 and 1991, however, the trend was more oriented towards Eastern Block manufacturers, by one side, and local solutions, by the other; the latter being clearly more appropriate for the Caribbean. Nevertheless, casual jeans and t-shirts have become the omnipresent daily garment for most Cubans, in spite of ages or gender.
Cuban fashion designers, by their side, have been periodically reinventing traditional dresses, sometimes with great doses of imagination, However, the lack of raw materials and the governmental policy of limiting and substituting importations, and even foreign influences, have been capital in the designers’ choices. But the sad truth is the people –and predominantly the young people– often prefer imported designs, despite it sometimes unfitting for the country’s climatic and cultural characteristics. Foreign mainstream media, however not having a direct presence in the island, together with tourism, and a certain contempt –among many of the youths for Cuban autochthonous culture, have sentenced the fate of traditional dresses, which only survive –as with old cars– as a picturesque product for tourists.
The sudden boom of Cuba in the world’s eye has, however, changed that scenario. Foreign designers are choosing Cuban motives for their newest collections, and Havana has become a fashionable place even for fashion shows and catwalks. Some of those designs have even revisited and reinterpreted some features of traditional dresses like the Bata Cubana and the Guayabera, and somehow the island has set a new trend for, mostly, European fashion. Cuban dress has taken from the world what beauty it had to offer. Now it’s time for Cuban dress to return some beauty and style to the world.