‘The Guayabera: A Shirt’s Story’ at HistoryMiami gives the pleated linen shirt its due

 

Exhibit at HistoryMiami explores the story behind the ubiquitous tropical chic shirt that every Caribbean man has tucked away in his closet.

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Guayabera bearing Cuban flag. 2012. Linen and cotton. Emiliano Nelson. Collection of HistoryMiami.
 

By John Coppola

The guayabera, for both makers and wearers, “speaks to cultural identity,” according to Michael Knoll, a folklorist at the South Florida Folklore Center.

Knoll, who curated HistoryMiami’s new exhibition, The Guayabera: A Shirt’s Story, explains that in mid-20th century Cuba, it reflected national identity. Today it has become part of Miami culture, wrapped up in nostalgia for a bygone era. Younger wearers have adopted it as a purely functional attire, especially as guayaberas have become “hipper,” Knoll says. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first exhibition to tell the shirt’s fascinating story.”

The exhibition offers a tightly focused, bilingual history of the shirt from mid-19th century Cuba to its present-day variations, which use newer designs and fabrics and implausibly range from a canine version to one made of leather.

Two highlights of the exhibition are a custom-made black guayabera-style dress worn by Celia Cruz, as well as a sewing machine, scissors and 1940s shirts made by Ramon Puig, a renowned Cuban tailor who emigrated to the United States in 1968.

The origins of the shirt and even its name are unclear. It is alternately said to have originated in Cuba, Mexico, Spain or even the Philippines. The design may have been based on Spanish military field uniforms, first becoming farmers’ apparel, then business attire. One version of its source and name comes from the Cuban city of Sancti-Spiritus, whose inhabitants are called yayaberos.

Whatever its origins, the guayabera is characterized by four pockets, vertical pleats, lightweight and light-colored fabric, and straight hems so it can be worn untucked.

The guayabera was popular attire in Cuba during the first half of the 20th century. George Feldenkreis, chairman and CEO of Perry Ellis International, which sponsored the exhibition, recalls not being able to afford one until he was 15 or 16, but then wearing one daily as a lawyer practicing in Havana. During its heyday in Cuba, the guayabera was so commonly worn that the Lyceum Lawn Tennis Club published an “Etiquette Guide on the Use and Abuse of the Guayabera” in 1948.

The guayabera fell out of sartorial favor after the Castro revolution, and production shifted to the Yucatan in Mexico. It became better known as a Mexican wedding shirt. Its basic characteristics stayed the same, but embroidery was added, likely an influence from the local Maya populations.

Former Mexican President Luis Echeverría frequently wore one to show he was a man of the people and often donned one during visits with foreign dignitaries. One of Echeverría’s shirts was loaned by his family to the exhibition, although it is made from polyester, which seems a dubious choice of fabric for warm-weather wear.

Feldenkreis came to Miami in 1961 and set about introducing the guayabera to South Florida through the company he founded, Supreme International. During a 1966 trip to Japan, he sketched its design for a local manufacturer who immediately said, “Oh you want Mexican wedding shirts!” Feldenkreis bought 500 dozen at about $1.50 each.

The HistoryMiami exhibition is the result of international research and the acquisition of guayaberas for the museum’s permanent collection. Kroll says it is part of a larger initiative to document and understand the history of the shirt. During the six-month run of the show, public programs will include a tour of Cuban establishments in downtown Miami, a presentation by researchers who worked on the exhibition, and a lecture and demonstration on the making of a guayabera. HistoryMiami is soliciting anecdotes and photographs of wearers in order to organize an expanded online version of the exhibition.

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