“Behind every great man, is even a greater woman.” I’ve always loved that quote. I’ll alter it slightly and substitute the word besides rather behind. But the wise, strong feminine power of our grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, wives, and friends is undeniable. And that’s why I love to share the story of the traditional Cuban guayabera shirt with my guests on a Little Havana tour; it’s origins had everything to do with the talents of a resourceful lady.
Speaking of ancestry, it’s hotly contested whether it truly was the Cuban culture who invented the four-pocket chemise. But what does seem to be agreed upon is that a clever Cuban wife added the front square sacks that enabled her husband to easily pick and carry guayabas ( guavas) when he was out in the field. Hence, this modification to the shirt’s facade gave the garment its commonly known moniker. The smart sewing also gave a home to store the cigar- loving husband’s fat smokes. Other Latin cultures have staked claim to the birth of the smock, but the proliferation of guayabera-donning Cubans, not only on the island, but in their adopted home of Miami, plants the custom literally squarely on this proud people’s shoulders.
So what compels one half of the human race ( woman wear it too, however the original creation was intended for men) to choose a guayabera instead of a plain old shirt. Well, it’s certainly distinct, if nothing else. It’s dominant feature is its decorative charm-unmistakable pleats called alforzas or commonly known as pin tucks or tuxes that differentiates this Cuban apparel from the pack. Traditionally the shirt has two pleats on the front and three on the back. Some versions of the shirt also feature a back yoke which has a single point in the middle of the shoulders making it look like a triangle resembling the Cuban flag. Along with the front four pockets created by our dexterous Cuban wife, there are matching short buttons on the top of each pocket, a cuffed sleeve with a single decorative button, slits on either side of the shirt, and a straight hem.
Paying homage to the relaxed nature of the Hispanic people, the guayabera is worn loosely, untucked over trousers. Cotton and linen are the two most popular materials used and trust me, you’ll want to stick only with these two textiles in hot, steamy Miami. Although polyester and other synthetic materials are used, please ignore the cheap duds and purchase something you’ll have for a long time. Choose a light-colored one and you’ll be able to reflect the heat of the sun. Colored guayaberas with intricate detailing are also highly prized for formal wear. In fact, in 2010 Cuba went so far as to reinstate the guayabera as the “official formal dress garment.”
As the attire has become the icon of Hispanic style, so too has it become a symbol of Hispanic culture. The shirt has been worn extensively by politicians and some say wearing it is a sign of affiliation with political positions. But you needn’t adopt a bureaucratic personality to enjoy the cool breathability of this button down. More in tune with the glitz of Miami, you could join the ranks of the celebrity wardrobes of Robert De Niro, Alonzo Mourning or even Ernest Hemingway who had their guayabera custom-made.
So, where does one go to graduate from wearing a ubiquitous frock to enrobing themselves in the quadruple-pocketed creation? While you can easily pick up a guayabera in many of the tourist shops all over Miami, it’s best to visit the experts on this one. Buying a guayabera is not like grabbing a T-shirt. It takes the trained eye of the perfect salesperson to transform your look. And I have just the places for you.
The Havana Shirt Store, located at 1421 SW 8th Street in the heart of Little Havana, is really a one-stop source for your guayabera needs and then some. You could walk into any bland establishment, and although it may have what you need, your experience is no more interesting than the banal building itself. But not here at the Havana Shirt Store. Owned by dapper Fidel Asis Lopez, Senor Lopez and his highly knowledgeable staff will find the perfect guayabera to start your presentation transformation. If you think I provided enough detail to have you shop for a guayabera with confidence, wait until you cross the threshold of this spacious, bright atelier. Dubbed “the most interesting man in the world”, well, at least by Fidel’s sweet daughter, I’d say she isn’t off the mark. Not only will Fidel outfit you to shine among the crowd, but every time you chat with him, he’ll tell an interesting story that makes you laugh and think. Humor, philosophy and fashion? I’d say that’s an experience worth having.
Just west of the shop, a few blocks away in Little Havana, you’ll come upon a burly, imposing, but gentle giant of a man, affectionately known in the area as Big Poppa. Dropping his real name Juan Cardona in favor of this funny pet name suits not only this chap, but an entire neighborhood that is larger than life. Given any hour, you’ll find Big Poppa, the manager of D’Asis, Fidel’s other guayabera shop, standing proudly under the store’s navy blue awning. But why visit this one if these two shops have the same owner? It’s all in the personality, darling. And Big Poppa has it in spades. While Fidel is courtly, debonair, and genial, Big Poppa is wildly affable and quite the endearing character. He will regale you with parable after parable told with such grandeur( hand gestures included), that you seriously must own a guayabera as a testament to the tales. This outlet is smaller than the Havana Shirt Store and Big Poppa treats it like his own living space.
Whatever shop you head for and while the true origins of the guayabera may never be known, one thing is clear. It’s a style that has been tried and tested over generations and actually has changed very little. While a senora may not be the one now holding the needle and thread, this traditional clothing is proof of the garment’s stylish profile and its long-lasting appeal.
But wait……Want to be Cuban, well, at least for a few hours? Drape yourself in an authentic guayabera and come join us at the Little Havana Food & Cultural Tour. If you liked the yarn of the guayabera, there are more insider anecdotes that our expert master guides will share with you on this fun, relaxed walking tour. We will see you soon!
By Robyn Webb