Guayabera Achievement Unlocked

La cumbre de la renovación se viste de guayabera. (The Summit of renewal dresses in guayabera.)
Soledad Alvarez
As I research gentleman traditions (and culture in general) I have found how many of the customs and behaviors people assume to be regional, the ones that hold a sense of national pride, are in actuality more global than they like to think. The reality is that globalism isn’t something new. We have been a global community since the invention of travel and commerce. Exchange of customs, knowledge, and traditions were the inevitable side effect of merchants moving from land to land trading their goods. When you realize this and the actual extent of this, you start questioning if your regional pride as a way to feel superior, or at least different from others, is actually valid.

This doubt happened to me some days ago, thanks to spring rolling in.

As the weather started to warm up, I unpacked all the clothing I couldn’t wear due to the climate (damn you cold weather, damn you to…). Among them were my Guayaberas. To me, the guayabera holds a special place as it was the shirts my grandfather always wore. I swear, the only time I saw him dressed in anything else was in an old picture of him dressed in his military dress uniform. To me, the guayabera spoke about old traditions, about my heritage and culture, giving me a sense of regional pride. Now that I know more than I did yesterday? It speaks to me about just how connected we all are as a global community.

Ernest Hemingway.
Don't think I need to say more.
For those who have never heard of a guayabera, this is a traditional cotton or linen shirt worn mostly in the Caribbean and Central America, that has found its way into the global scene. Easily recognizable because of its four front pockets, symmetrical pair of vertical pleating or embroidery across its front and a straight hem meant to be worn untucked. The guayabera has become synonymous with the image of the distinguished Latin American gentleman.

Although the general public might assume the guayabera as a Latin American version of the Hawaiian shirt, this is far from the intended purpose of the shirt. The traditional guayabera’s stylish details have a practical origin as they were intended as shirts for field workers, yet the same design styling would also be used for formal dress shirts. Their regional appeal has lead to a more modern version generally called a tourist guayabera. This one I have to admit is little more than Latin American Hawaiian shirts.

Guava Fruit
As popular as the guayabera might be, its origins have been lost to time as each regional group within the Caribbean tries to take credit for its creation. The most common story, or at least the most vocal one given, places the guayabera’s humble beginnings in the Cuban countryside during the early 18th century.  A poor seamstress sewed four pockets on to the front of her husband’s shirt so he could carry guayabas, known in English as guava fruit.

The Cubans place its origins near the Yayabo River in Sancti Spiritus, where the locals of the area were called Yayabero. This claim is repeated every year on July 1, as the Cuban community worldwide celebrates Guayabera Day. To the Cuban's dismay, the Mexicans claim it started in the Yucatan or Veracruz, as they call it a “Camisa de Yucatan” (Yucatan shirt) or Guayabana, the region’s indigenous word meaning to “throw over.” The shirts relationship with this region and to Merida, a Mexican town famous for its embroidery work, is why some people refer to the guayabera as a “Mexican Wedding Shirt.” 

Here's where the story becomes more complicated. Some people believe that the guayabera actually had its origin in China, Thailand, or the Philippines as an evolution of the Barong Shirt. The shirt found its way into the Caribbean area either with the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade route of the Spaniards of the early 1800's or massive Chinese migration to Central America and the Caribbean in 1850’s. Still others say that it actually started in Andalucía, Spain, and as it use spread due to merchant routes, it began picking up details and flairs from every region it passed by.

Whatever its birthplace was or who influenced its development, the guayabera’s popularity kept growing throughout the centuries as a functional and stylish dress option to the suite within warm weather climates worldwide. Past its localized appeal, the shirt grew in popularity as Cuban missionaries took the shirt into Africa in the late 19th century and the Caribbean migration to Florida, New York, and some regions of Europe during the Spanish American war of 1898 and the later half of the 20th century. In truth, the big boom of the guayabera happened as the interest in tropical music and Latin culture thanks to that mid-20th century migration, as it gave the guayabera a renewed  worldwide exposure and appeal. Its position within the fashion industry became cemented when in 1967; Perry Ellis International established its business in Miami, making what was considered a niche item into an accessible shirt for a broader audience.

Safari Shirt
Besides being called guayabera or Mexican wedding shirt, it has many names depending on the region in question. In the Dominican Republic, it’s called a Chacabana while in most parts of Europe its simply called  a “Cubana,” a Cuban. A variation of the guayabera gave birth to the “Safari Shirt” in Britain and Zimbabwe, although these are made usually of hemp and cotton, and have a sturdier feel. A similar shirt in Guyana, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands is called a “Shirt-jac” while in Jamaica it’s known as a bush jacket. In the Samoan islands, the shirt is used as part of the “safari set,” a man’s formal attire.

When you consider the climate of all these areas, it makes perfect sense that the guayabera, with it's light feel and practical elegance, is viewed as the go-to shirt for men who want to distinguish themselves. Political leaders adopted the shirt as the official dress garment as a demonstration of populist ideals, since the suit, is usually viewed as a sign of foreign influence.

Hemingway helping Cooper level-up.
Although in most of the world, the suit is king, in the tropics, for men who want to stand out, the guayabera trumps it. Now that you understand how this shirt is the child of a global exchange of cultures, why not extend this tradition beyond the Hispanic community. Next time the weather is hot and your attitude is hotter, when you want to stand out triumphant over the sea of Navy Blues and Ties, why not pull a Hemmingway. Sometimes you have to level-up past the suit, and unlock the Guayabera.

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