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The truth about Guayaberas (and some lies)

The truth about Guayaberas (and some lies)

by Ciro Bianchi Ross

The Legend
They say that in 1709, a husband and wife from Andalusia, Spain, José Pérez Rodríguez and Encarnación Núñez García, arrived in the town of Sancti Spíritus. One fine day they received a bolt of linen from Spain and José asked Encarnación to sew up some loose shirts from the cloth: he wanted them to have long sleeves and large pockets and he wanted them to be worn not tucked into the trousers. His wife went to work and a few months later those shirts were all the rage in that neck of the woods.

This event has its detractors who assure us that in that year regulations established by the Real Compañía de Comercio [the Royal Trading Company] to govern trade between the metropolis and the colony prohibited such deliveries and, besides, there wasn’t any communication in place between Spain and Sancti Spíritus. In my opinion, that prohibition is not so significant in the long run since the Andalusians could have obtained the package of cloth as smuggled goods, something that was very fashionable those days. What is really quite unbelievable is that such a purely domestic occurrence would be recorded in history and with such an abundance of details including the date, the  names of the protagonists, the clothing design…it  was as if it was tailor-made for future historians to be able to declare, without any shadow of a doubt, that that was how the guayabera was born. It is such a perfect story that it leaves us no alternative other than to doubt its veracity. But it does mark the beginning of the guayabera legend or, at least, it sets the scene for that legend to take root.

Our guajiros (peasants) didn’t wear them in the nineteenth century. The literature of that era describes them wearing blue or striped shirts, which were generally worn hanging outside of the trousers. The permanent elements of their attire were yarey hats made of palm leaf straw, machetes, calfskin leather shoes and kerchiefs knotted  around their necks to soak up their perspiration.

Poor peasants usually wore chamarretas, a garment  with shirt-tails and narrow sleeves. It was the chamaretta and not the guayabera that was worn in the wars against Spain. In the Guerra Grande [the Big War], the Liberation Army didn’t have any uniforms. Mambis [the freedom fighters] wore whatever they had available, either city or countrystyle garb. By the start of the War of Independence in 1895, Martí mentions the chamaretta in his Diary. Charito Bolaños was the woman who sewed for the freedom fighters during the entire War of Independence and Charito declared that she never sent one single guayabera into the fray,  only chamarettas. María Elena Molinet, daughter  of one of the generals fighting for Independence, researched this matter from the ground up since she was the head of costume design for films such as Baraguá and La primera carga al machete and she collected over 120 photographs of Mambis in battle. Not one of them was wearing a guayabera.


All about that shirt

It is difficult to pin down the start and evolution of any item of traditional popular clothing. As for guayaberas, no other Cuban region disputes their paternity—they agree it happened in the town of Yayabo. The shirt was called a yayabera and was essentially an early guayabera that went out to invade neighboring areas….In 1866, Don Nicolás Azcárate was elected in Güines to be their delegate to the Junta de Información de Madrid and the electors organized a party in honor of the triumphant reformist politician. According to Azcárate, peasants from all around came to the festivity dressed in “classical guayaberas with mother-of-pearl buttons and wearing Panama  hats.” The oldest pictorial representation of the  garment comes to us dated 1906. But the word guayabera as a Cubanism does not gain legitimacy until 1921 when Constantito Suárez included it in his Vocabulario cubano.

It then jumped from Cuba over to the Yucatan Peninsula. Upper class gentlemen from Yucatan used to buy the shirts in Havana until after 1960 when they started to produce them in that Mexican state and Merida became the world guayabera capital until the Asians, with their imitations manufactured in Japan and Taiwan, wiped out the local industry. Cuban guayaberas are nothing like the Philippine version, which has no pockets and is worn with the neck buttoned up.
Throughout Central America, the guayabera gets called Habanera.

Guayaberas are descended from shirts, the most ancient of all garments known to mankind. The prestigious designer María Elena Molinet asks the following questions: When did that shirt transform into a guayabera? Who turned the pleats into pintucks, reinforced the openings and edges and made the three-pointed yoke in the front and the back? She tells us: “The birth of the guayabera is not the work of one single person and we still have not determined at what moment it turned into such an elegant, fresh, white, well-starched and well-ironed item of clothing, a garment that could be worn without a tie.”

A combination of the chamaretta and the peasant guayabera, our current guayabera takes shape in the 1920s, owing much to the work of shirtmakers and seamstresses in Sancti Spíritus and Zaza del Medio. In those days it was made out of khakicolored drill until the 1930s when linen began to be used. In this new version, the garment became popular in provincial cities but it had a difficult  time conquering Havana. Its use in the capital was  so limited that it could be practically said that it wasn’t in use at all. You can’t see anyone wearing them in movies or in press photos of the era and the popular caricaturist Abela didn’t dress his famous cartoon El Bobo in a guayabera.

With the fall of Machado (1933), customs underwent a number of modifications. By the 1940s, guayaberas became widespread and fashionable in Havana. They were being worn more and more frequently and were being complemented with bow ties. When Dr. Ramón Grau San Martín (1944) became President, the guayabera entered the Presidential Palace. In contrast, his successor and disciple Carlos Prío thought they were not the proper  thing to wear at protocol events and he banished  them from government activities. But guayaberas took over the display-windows of the best stores and they conquered advertising. By then, the capital was a giant warehouse of guayaberas that threatened to replace any other style of menswear, something that had no precedent in history or tradition. It was so serious that it even changed our lifestyle according to journalist Isabel Fernández de Amado Blanco in 1948. In 1955, the Administrative Division of the Supreme Court passed a provision banning guayaberas from the law courts. That was when a good pure Bramante linen guayabera would cost as much as a cheap suit. This is also when the guayabera showed up in cheap versions, not made of linen, but cotton. The design became simpler. It was no longer just white, the sleeves weren’t always long and the usual mother-of-pearl buttons were replaced by ordinary ones.

The Revolution triumphed and guayaberas were relegated to the background, disappearing from the scene because some people considered they represented a by-gone era of corrupt politicians. The country was suffering from commercial aggression, acts of sabotage, invasions and terrorist acts, and there were shortages of everything possible. Constant mobilizations were going on for everything from factory work to military training. The National Militia uniform seemed to fit the bill, not just for the peoples’ army’s activities but for any daily task, including attending ceremonies as solemn as weddings or funerals. By the end of the 1970s, the guayabera made a timid reappearance. It had long sleeves and tiny pleats but it wasn’t linen—it was made of polyester and it came in colors other than just white. It quickly became inexpensive and young people saw it as the symbol of the bureaucrat in action. Today it is undergoing another renaissance.

Which one are we talking about?

The guayabera has four pockets and is decorated with rows of pintucks—two rows in front and three
on the back. At one time, the back yoke had a single point making it look like a triangle which, with the  three rows of tine pleats, resembled the Cuban flag. It was always white, long-sleeved and sported 27  buttons. It tapered slightly to the waist. As time went by, the back yoke had three points from which the three rows of pleats took off and the 27 buttons remained. Today, the guayabera is fashioned in different designs, materials and colors. There are embroidered versions and those done with the drawn-thread technique; there are those with more or less pintucks and those with more or fewer buttons. But it is still that same elegantly fresh garment. Cubanísima—100% Cuban.
(Extract taken from

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