Its roots are in 19th century Cuba, but the guayabera — a button-down shirt in cotton or linen with four pockets and embroidery or pleats down the front — has evolved into a fashionable and formal shirt worn from Mexico to Miami to Tampa.
"The Guayabera: A Shirt's Story" at the HistoryMiami museum is the first exhibition to trace the story of the shirt's evolution through Cuba, Mexico and the United States, where it is particularly popular in cities with large Latin American and Caribbean populations. The exhibition runs through Jan. 13.
Very little has been written about the origins of the guayabera, so researchers visited Cuba, Mexico and Miami to find out more about the shirt worn by everyone from guajiros (peasants) and abuelos (grandfathers) to politicians and celebrities.
Research suggests that the guayabera originated in Cuba and was worn in the countryside, but the garment may have looked like the Spanish military uniform made out of a fabric called rayadillo (blue and white striped material) worn by soldiers during the Cuban War of Independence.
"The historical evidence that we uncovered suggests that in the late 1800s, a clothing item called the guayabera existed. What that looked like is another story," said Michael Knoll, curator of the exhibition and HistoryMiami folklorist. Pointing to a military garment on display and a document referring to the Spanish military uniform as "guayabera," he added, "There are features of this shirt that are clearly reminiscent of what we understand the guayabera to look like today."
Unlike the contemporary guayabera, the military garments featured four pockets along the hem. By the mid 20th century, it had evolved into its iconic version: white, long-sleeved, linen with two chest and two hem pockets.
Knoll said the shirt "slowly died as a popular tradition in Cuba, to the point where today it's associated with the government." The shirts are available for tourists in Cuba, but guayaberas are rarely seen on the streets in Havana today, he added.
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, manufacturers in Mexico took over production of the shirt and at some point, embroidery was introduced, adding the textile tradition among the Mayan culture to the shirts. Also called the "Mexican wedding shirt," the guayabera became even more popular during the 1970s when then-president Luis Echeverria began to wear the shirts for government and business purposes "to connect to the population." (Politicians sometimes don guayaberas when campaigning in Miami to connect with the Hispanic vote.)
Miami became the hub for innovation, carrying on the tradition of the shirt while reinventing it to include fashion-forward styles with prints and unique fabrics such as denim. On display at the exhibition are tunics for women, including a long black dress worn by salsa queen Celia Cruz, baby rompers and mini-guayaberas for boys made by Old Navy (although a boy's version of the shirt has existed since the 1940s). There is even one for your dog.
"It's important to try to appeal to the contemporary taste including the youth," Knoll said. "If it doesn't evolve, it's going to die."
The shirt, worn untucked, has become a staple for beach weddings, with its linen fabric and light color keeping the wearer cool and a style that can pass for formal.
The guayabera has different names in different countries, but the exact origin of its most common name is uncertain. The exhibition attempts to understand the folklore surrounding it, including how the garment's name is a derivative of the Spanish word "guayaba" for the fruit "guava." According to one story, a husband asked his wife to create a shirt with pockets to hold his belongings while working. Another, shown through a painting at the exhibition, explains how the pockets were used to hold guavas.
Sewing scissors that belonged to Ramón Puig, who was one of the best-known guayabera tailors in the world, are on display as is one of his shirts from the late 1940s.
Knoll says designers and manufacturers of the shirt through the years have all been "business people trying to make money. But it's also about perpetuating a tradition and honoring their cultural heritage," he said. "That says a lot about how meaningful this shirt actually is."