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Glamour in Havana

Glamour in Havana

t was December 31, 2009. An old project that I had one conceived with my friend Rodrigo Orrantia, which we never carried out, as well as another project of my wife’s, a documentary about fat people and fashion—also never carried out—had been milling around inside my head. With this in mind, I decided to take a series of fashion photos and this seemed a prime time to portray the inhabitants of Havana to the full, with a good attitude and their best outfits. But something did not fit in very well. In my view, the characters were easily lost in the over-elaborate background of the city.

Then I remembered Richard Avedon’s exhibition The American West in which ordinary people, miners and farmers, were photographed on a white background. I grabbed a sheet of my mother in law’s, hammered it onto two strips of wood and went out with my 55mm camera dangling from my neck into the streets of Havana. I took 120 pictures that day.

As in Avedon’s photos, when the subjects were isolated from the scenery and placed against a white area, they were profoundly transformed. One woman introduced herself as the Rolling Stones’ Cuban manager, another as a Desperate Housewife from Vedado and one man as a Central Havana Taxi Driver.

Taking a good look at their garbs, one might even think they were telling the truth. Fashion in Cuba comes from couriers, packages and stores. People get by with what they can find. “There are T-shirts at such and such store,” so you go and buy T-shirts. It’s the same with food, or the color of paint or shoes. Cubans adapt what’s at hand to their likings. “This T-shirt is OK. I’ll take it.”

Limited offers also induce the ladies to always leave the house with a plastic bag so that the good luck of finding eggs or vegetables does not take them by surprise. And although plastic bags can also be scarce, they make an effort to find a blue or pink bag to match with a skirt or blouse.

One of the first photos I took that day was that of Dona Berta Hernández Samá, an older woman with an extremely youthful yellow dress. Without asking her anything, in a matter of seconds she told me about her glorious past as “Tania,” her stage name as singer at the nightclub on Paseo and 23rd streets; several intimate details about her neighbors; and the names of all her dogs—all this while she posed for the camera with the naturalness of a star making a comeback.

In addition to the scarce yet varied commercial offer, it is traditional in Havana to order custom-made clothes at neighborhood dressmaking shops known as ateliers. The dressmakers and tailors in these shops have made clothes for many of the Cubans that were born before the 1970s, especially for women. This craft has slowly dwindled, although it still persists.

Besides custom-made shops, the generation who grew with the Revolution has had to suffer the rigors of state-owned stores with donations from countries like China or Venezuela, old jeans, printed shirts, Cuban baseball shirts and low-key garments that depress the buyer.

The new generations prefer to look outwards. Travelers to Cuba become bearers of wardrobes for friends and families. This is where the cool side of young Cubans’ clothes comes from. Outfits to show off at the Malecón waiting for the occasional photographer with a white sheet hanging from two strips of wood. May 2012

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