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Guayabera History

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The Legend, the Leisure and the Lure of the Guayabera


A study of the history, origin, evolution and fashion appeal of this versatile shirt

By Alan D. Davis | LocoStyle.com


May 2008

Guayabera shirts have been in the United States for many decades now. However, their popularity has
never been greater than it is today. With this increased growth in popularity it seems a fitting time to
explore the appeal and history of these stylish shirts. This article is intended to be a broad guide to the
history of the guayabera as well as a look at current guayabera fashions and trends. A section titled
“How to Buy a Guayabera” is also included as a simple buying guide for those who have never owned
or purchased a guayabera.

What is a Guayabera?
A guayabera shirt goes by a variety other names such as: Mexican wedding shirt, Mexican shirt, Cuban
wedding shirt, Cuban shirt, barber shop shirt, Havana shirt, cigar shirt, and yayabera shirt. Guayabera is
pronounced “gway-ah-bear-ah,” with a very soft “g” at the beginning of the word (a difficult sound to
make for many whom do not speak some form of Latin). For purposes of this article, you will see
guayabera and Mexican wedding shirt used interchangeably.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, guayabera is defined as: A light open-necked cotton
shirt, often with large pockets and pleats down the front, that is typically worn outside the pants. This
definition is quite broad, but due to the shirt’s versatility and diversity in fashioning, it is virtually
impossible to accurately define guayabera in a single sentence.

Guayabera shirts come in many styles, fabrics and colors to suit just about anyone’s tastes. Guayaberas
are typically button-down shirts with two to four pockets and several vertical rows of pleats (s.
alforzas) or embroidery (s. bordado) on the front and/or back. The pleats and embroidery designs range
from simple to intricate – depending on the shirt’s intended use. The shirts can be short-sleeved, long-
sleeved or sleeveless. Women’s guayabera lines are also becoming popular and include an assortment
blouses, skirts and dresses.

Fabrics used for guayaberas can be made from numerous fibers including polyester-cotton blends,
100% cotton, 100% polyester, silk, linen and a variety of other less-common materials. The most
frequent fabrics are cotton, poly-cotton and linen as these are much cooler than most other fabrics. The
weights of the fabrics used for guayaberas range anywhere from extremely light to extremely heavy.
The weaves are typically plain, poplin, broadcloth, twill or a variation of these.

Many experimental designs and styles have been developed over the years. Some have stood the test of
time. Others have withered away. The following picture is of a traditional guayabera shirt with
embroidered front.
LocoStyle brand Mexican-made, poly-cotton, four-pocket guayabera with embroidered front and
pleated back.

Origin of the Guayabera


There is much contention over the origin of the guayabera. Most people believe that the shirt originated
in Cuba or Mexico, but some argue that it may have come from Spain, Thailand or even the Philippines
by way of Chinese slave traders. While there is no solid evidence to pinpoint the shirt’s true roots, there
are some widespread legends that are worth exploring. You may choose to adopt one of these or you
might want to create your own story and create even more mystery.

Thailand
This is probably the least common assertion, but some do believe that the guayabera is a descendant of
the Thai clothing. Perhaps a shirt that evolved from the “Mo-Hom,” also known as the Thai farmer’s
shirt. Some similarities between the guayabera and the Mo-Hom can be easily recognized. The Mo-
Hom typically has two pickets in the front and it is made to be an open, loose fitting shirt. However,
very little information is available to connect this shirt directly with the guayabera.

Philippines
This legend is a little more prevalent than the Thailand story, but is still vastly less popular than other
theories. Filipino’s sometimes wear a traditional shirt called a barong tagalong, which is thought to
have arrived from Spain during the Spanish colonial era. Some similarities can be seen between the
barong and the guayabera, such as front pockets, but the shirt is much more formal than the guayabera.
In fact, it is commonly used for ceremonial events. Guayaberas are commonly used in
formal/ceremonial events as well, but they are also used casually and the barong is seldom used
casually anymore. Like the Thai Mo-Hom, there is not near enough evidence available to prove a
historical relationship.

One interesting point to this belief is that even if it holds true, it is possible that the guayabera still
originated from Spain - another theory described below. This is due to the fact that the barong itself
likely originated from Spain - a topic that is controversial as well.

Spain
There are some tales that declare Spain as the true father of the guayabera. One belief, mentioned
earlier, is that the shirts originated from the Filipino barong, which is sometimes believed to be of
Spanish heritage. Therefore the shirt is of Spanish heritage itself, a weak argument from most people’s
perspective.

Another story is that a rich Cuban rancher had the shirt custom made in Spain and imported to Cuba in
the 1700s. Farmers and other locals liked the form and utility and found ways to replicate it locally.
Before long it caught on throughout Cuba, and eventually in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
Some might argue that the guayabera shirt, while made in Spain according to this theory, was still of
Cuban decent because the rancher specifically designed the shirt. Little more is known about this story
so not much more can be said about its legitimacy.

Mexico
Some believe that Mexico is the creator of the guayabera. Many believe that the Yucatans (descendents
of the Mayans) invented the shirt and that Cuba imported the idea. Many of the world’s guayaberas are
manufactured in the Yucatan today, perhaps leading to more support for that theory. However, many
contend that the Cubans created the shirt and it was later picked up by Mexicans who had seen Cuban
tourists wearing it in the late 20th century. Once again, no undisputable evidence exists to prove this
theory.

Despite the accuracy of this theory, Mexico has definitely had a significant part in the evolution of this
shirt.

Cuba
The most widely accepted belief is that the guayabera originated in Cuba. As outlined below, there are
several popular stories of where and why the garment was created.

First, and probably most commonly cited, is a story of a small farmer (campesino) and his wife who
designed the shirt in the village Sancti Spíritus in Cuba. As the story goes the farmer wanted to create a
functional shirt to carry all of his necessities. He wanted to carry tobacco, matches, snacks, writing
utensils, and other items in his shirt pockets. He asked his wife to sew four pockets on the shirt with
buttons that would secure his belongings. His wife sewed the shirt and it was quickly adopted by other
peasants in the village. One interesting aspect of this theory is that some claim the fabric for this initial
shirt was imported from Spain, giving Spain at least a hand in the invention of the shirt.

Another story, and perhaps a simple permutation of the prior story, tells of a farmer along the Yayabo
river (also in Sancti Spíritus) who had the shirt designed to carry guava (gauyaba) fruit. He wanted
plentiful pockets in which to carry his bounty. This theory drums up abundant support because of the
similarities between the name guayabera and the words Yayabo and guayaba. In fact, some people
actually call these shirts yayaberas. However, there is no formal record of how far back that name goes.
Some just think it is another attempt by Cubans to build support for their claim that the guayabera is
from Cuba.

Cuba, regardless of whether then invented the shirt or not, has had great influence on the evolution of
this shirt. As seen in a later section, one of Cuba’s great poets even wrote a poem about it. Cuban
leaders of different eras have praised these shirts and worn them as a cultural symbol.

Given the number of myths about the origin of the guayabera it is obvious that nobody knows for
certain where these shirts started. However, this also gives some indication of the admiration and pride
that many people have for these shirts. Why else would so many countries and cultures be so eager to
argue that they are the original inventors?

Transformation over Time


There is no way to know with certainty what the first guayabera shirts looked like. Research indicates
that they might have been fairly plain button-down shirts with four pockets, or they might have had
pleats on them from the beginning. Regardless of how the originals looked, these shirts have witnessed
a few fashion “enhancements” over time.

Below is a list of some of the attributes that have evolved with the guayabera through history. This is
by no means a comprehensive list and changes occur continually with these garments. Some of these
changes are experimental and die quickly. Others stand the test of time. Who knows where this shirt
will go in future years, but it will interesting to see them adapt in time.

Fabric
Since polyester did not exist when the guayabera shirt was born; it is very probable that the first shirts
were made out of cotton, or possibly linen. There is some possibility that the shirts were woven from
animal fur of some sort, such as wool or mohair, but that is very unlikely – especially since a primary
function of the shirt was to keep the wearer cool. Modern guayaberas are made from many materials
including cotton, linen, silk, polyester, nylon, rayon and many combinations of these and other blends.
Companies typically choose fabric fibers based on the particular market they are trying to serve. A silk
guayabera might be better suited for formal wear than is polyester, for instance. At the same time,
100% polyester is not well suited for warm climates. The most common fabric is probably a poly-
cotton blend that allows the shirts to breath easy, but is also very durable. Linen is popular as well
because it looks good and has a cooling effect due to the heat conduction qualities of the fiber. Many
people don't like the fact that they have to iron linen though.

Color
It is likely that the original color of the shirt was white, or some earth tone color available in the 18th
and 19th centuries. Today these shirts come in a plethora of fabric colors and many are also adorned
with colorful embroidery stitching. Color has grown to be a major attribute for achieving a particular
style in guayabera shirt design.

Embroidery and Pleats


Early guayaberas were probably either missing pleats altogether or they had some sort of simple
vertical pleating on the front and/or back. In the 21st century these shirts can range from no pleats to
complex pleating and embroidery on the same shirt. Guayabera designers have become very creative in
designing new embroidery patterns using a variety of colors. Today there are patterns to suit just about
any craving.

Usage
While the original guayabera shirts were probably invented with more emphasis on utility than style,
many of the recent shirts have taken a different approach. The original guayaberas were designed to be
lightweight and cool, and to have enough pockets to carry plenty of necessities. Some newer shirts are
design with none of these items in mind.

For example, some manufacturers in Asia design and sell 100% polyester guayaberas that are made of
very heavy fabric. They are typically garnished by flashy embroidery designs and some shirts do not
even have functional pockets. The audience for such a shirt is quite a deviation from the original
wearer. This type of shirt might appeal to the younger individual who is going to wear it to the local
dance club, but it probably isn't functional as a beach shirt in the tropics.

Many guayaberas are versatile and can be worn in casual or formal settings – even without changing
shirts! There is an expansive range of quality, comfort, and design styles available. Guayaberas are
available to cover just about any setting. So while one might get away with a single shirt that could be
worn casually or formally, there are also versions available for both extremely casual and extremely
formal occasions. There is a wide spectrum here and depending on what your needs are you can find a
shirt that best fits the occasion.

Guayabera Fashion
Guayabera shirts can be found in every state in the US today as well as Canada, Europe, Australia, Asia
and parts of Africa - all over the world really. As the shirts gain popularity in the US, they are being
worn more and more by high profile people. Recently, President Bush wore one when visiting Mexico.
Shaquille O'neal sported one at a celebration in Miami when he joined the Miami Heat in 2004.
Various celebrities have been seen wearing these unique shirts in public.
So what makes the guayabera shirt so desirable? One could ask a dozen people that question and would
probably get as many answers. Some might like the comfort, others mike like the style, and still others
might actually like to use the four pockets! Whatever the answer is though, most would probably agree
that the shirt is very versatile.

As mentioned earlier, the shirt can be worn casually or as formal attire. Many organizations wear them
as group shirts – such as softball teams, corporate groups or bowling leagues. Some people call them
cigar shirts and they like to wear them to their favorite smoking lounge. Some companies even use
them for uniforms because of their versatility. They are very festive, yet they are professional looking
and comfortable. That is not a combination you can find in many articles of clothing.

One of the most common uses for guayaberas today is as wedding shirts – hence the common
nickname “Mexican wedding shirt.” The Mexican wedding shirt is very commonly worn by grooms
and groomsmen in weddings. Destination weddings are increasing in popularity and tropical and beach
weddings are a big component of that growth. More and more couples are looking to escape the hustle
and bustle of ordinary wedding planning and go right to the destination along with a select group of
attendees. Since Mexican wedding shirts are commonly used for these beach weddings, this has added
even more popularity to the shirt.

How to Buy a Guayabera


When purchasing a guayabera, there are several key considerations to think through before purchasing.
Below is a list of some of these considerations and what too look for in each of them. Some people
might find the “perfect” shirt that fits 100% of their desires, but other may have to make trade-offs to
get the best shirt for their needs. Often times LocoStyle customers buy multiple shirts in the same order
so that they have even more flexibility in their wardrobe.

Style
Everyone has their own tastes when it comes to attire. There is no way to recommend what style would
be best suited any given person in the context of this article. Suffice it to say that with so many styles,
colors, fabrics and designs available, most people can find something that fits their fancy.

Functionality
Most guayaberas are still made to be cool in tropical climates, and most still do have four functional
pockets. However, intricate design tweaks have caused some shirts to deviate heavily from the original
product. Some people wear them strictly as a fashion statement, putting less stress on comfort or utility
and more on looks. But most still want a cool, loose fitting shirt that breaths properly and lets airflow
move from the bottom opening through the rest of the shirt.

Maintenance and Durability


Where and how often you plan on wearing your Mexican wedding shirt may impact your purchasing
decision. 100% cotton is durable and soft, but is not quite as cool as a lighter poly-cotton fabric. This
often a misconception because most people believe that 100% cotton is cooler. If the material weights
were exactly the same that would be the case, but 100% cotton is usually a bit heavier. Both can
typically be pulled from the dryer without ironing, though 100% cotton sometimes needs a touch up.
Linen is a very cool, breathable material and has an appearance that can fit formal or casual events. But
remember, linen has to be ironed before wearing. Silks are nice for formal events, but are fragile and
somewhat hot. They typically must be dry cleaned, adding to the ownership cost. 100% polyester is
very hot and many complain of itching with the material against their skin.
If you are going to wear your shirt on a regular basis, you just need to make sure that it is made of a
quality fabric that will stand the test of time. Cotton, linen and poly-cotton are still the fibers used in
most guayaberas today. They are durable, attractive and cool. That is still what most consumers want
from a guayabera.

Budget
Guayabera shirt prices vary greatly, depending on the quality, style, fabric, design and
retailers/wholesalers that are selling the shirts. Prices range from $10 for lower quality shirts to more
than $300 dollars for custom shirts. When buying guayaberas make sure to shop around and look at a
variety of styles and fabrics. For some guayaberas you will find many different vendors selling the
same product for very different prices. Some retailers are more specialized and sell products that are
unique. Guayaberas made in Mexico are typically slightly more expensive than those made overseas.
Sometimes this price difference is a result of quality differences. Sometimes it is simply a result of
cheaper labor and material costs in certain overseas regions.

Manufacturing Considerations
While Merida, Mexico has a major guayabera manufacturing presence, most guayaberas coming into
the USA today are actually not made in Mexico or anywhere near Latin America. Most are actually
sewn in Asia and made of Asian fabrics. Quality varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer, but
there are some Asian manufacturers who make very high quality shirts. Some shirts will last for years
of heavy usage and others will not likely make it through a single season of heavy usage. As with other
merchandise, pricing is not always the leading indicator of quality. In apparel, you do not always get
what you pay for. Make sure you purchase from a reputable source with a good customer service
record. Reputable vendors stand behind their name and will make sure that the shirt you are buying is
high quality.

Regardless of where you purchase your shirt, do your research first. Find a company that has been
around for a while and who stands behind their products, services and customers.

Additional Points of Interest


Guayabera shirts are so cool that a 19th century Cuban poet, Juan Cristobal Napoles Fajardo (AKA, El
Cucalambé), even wrote a poem about them. Honestly, El Cucalambé’s meaning is much deeper and
much more pure than just being “cool.” He is praising the shirt as a symbol of Cuba itself – even
making mention of heroic men who shed blood in battle over independence from Spain. Here is the
poem in its original form:

¡Oh Guayabera! Camisa


de alegre botonadura,
cuatro bolsillos, frescura,
de caña brava y de brisa.
Fuiste guerrera mambisa
con más de un botón sangriento
cuando el heroico alzamiento,
y por eso la bandera
tiene algo de guayabera
que viste al galán del viento.

Invasora espirituana,
comenzaste tu invasión
y entre Júcaro y Morón
te llamaban La Trochana.
Te quiso Camagüeyana
el Camagüey noble y bravo,
hasta que al fin, desde el Cabo
de San Antonio a Maisí,
Cuba no viste sin ti,
Onda fresca del Yayabo.

Below is a rough English translation of this poem:

Oh Guayabera! Shirt
of happy buttons,
four pockets, coolness,
of brave cane and breeze.
You went warrior like mambisa (member of the Army of Liberation)
with more than one bloody button
during the heroic uprising,
and for that the flag
is something of a guayabera
that dresses the gallant of the wind.

Espirituana invader,
You began your invasion
and between Júcaro and Morón
they called you La Trochana.
It wanted you Camagüeyana
the noble and brave Camagüey
until the end, since the Cape
of San Antonio a Maisí,
Cuba isn’t dressed without you,
fresh wave of the Yayabo. (River where the espirituanos lived and harvested guayaba fruit.)

Cuban poet Juan Cristobal Napoles Fajardo

AKA “El Cucalambé”

1829 – 1862

It is commonly believed, but not proven, that El Cucalambé was killed in 1862 by Spanish authorities.
July 1st is recognized by many Cubans as “Día de la Guayabera,” or Guayabera Day. July 1st was
Fajardo’s birthday and many believe that this is a tribute to Fajardo and his contributions to Cuban
culture and society.

Alan Davis is the Vice President of Business Development for http://www.LocoStyle.com, a retailer
and wholesaler of high quality guayabera shirts and dresses. Alan can be contacted by email at
alan@locostyle.com or by phone at 1-888-LOCOSTYLE.

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