If you Google a photo of a recent summit of heads of state, for example, the Cumbre de las Américas (Summit of the Americas), you’ll notice something interesting. While some of the leaders will be wearing suits, as expected at such a formal occasion, you will also see leaders wearing a loose, white button-down shirt with four pockets and embroidery – worn long and untucked. Called la guayabera, this shirt is considered formal attire and is completely appropriate.
La guayabera appears to have first come about in the late 18th or early 19th century, and like so many aspects of Hispanic culture, the history of la guayabera shirt has different versions.
Cubans claim it’s Cuban, Mexicans claim it’s Mexican, and there are even those who say it came from the Dominican Republic, where it’s called a chacabana.
Origins of La Guayabera
However, most histories point to Cuba as the original creator of the guayabera, although the exact story varies.
In one, a husband asks his wife for a shirt designed so that he could carry around important items such as handkerchiefs and cigars. In another, a Spanish immigrant created the style of shirt.
Stories of the Mexican origin of the shirt are generally tied to the coastal areas of Veracruz and the Yucatán Peninsula. These regions both had considerable trade with Cuba, and it’s likely that guayaberas arrived in Mexico near the turn of the 20th century through these trading routes.
Despite the likely Cuban origins, Mexico clearly contributed greatly to the popularity and the spread of la guayabera, particularly in the 1970s. In Mexico, it’s called a Mexican wedding shirt, since they commonly wear it at weddings.
The Yucatán, where it’s called a camisa de Yucatán (Yucatán shirt), is also believed to have added the iconic embroidery to the shirt, making the embroidered guayabera truly a mix of Latin cultures.
One part of the story that stays fairly consistent is the origin of the name. Given the size and number (four) of pockets, it’s believed that they were used to carry guavas (guayabas). However, it’s also possible that the name came from Cuba, from the people called the yayaberos who lived near the Yayabo River.
The shirts themselves can be short- or long-sleeved, and they can be any color. Most common, and most formal, are white shirts.
One of the hallmarks of the guayabera is its trademark folds, generally accompanied by detailed embroidery.
Wearing a Guayabera
One reason that so many Latin men prefer guayaberas is their comfort. They are lightweight and men wear it untucked (hence the straight hem), and even have side vents – great for those who may have put on some weight! And of course, you can carry anything in those four pockets.
The shirts can be made of any lightweight fabric, but traditionally they have been made of linen or cotton, both cool choices in the warm climates of the best Cuban beaches and coastal Mexico.
Given the recent increase in destination weddings to Latin American tropical locations, guayaberas have become wedding attire for a new, non-Hispanic generation of couples.
Men choosing this kind of attire for their wedding, not traditional in their own culture, do so as a nod to the country where they are getting married. Many also appreciate the guayabera’s more informal look, as well as its comfort in hot climes.
As a symbol of Latin culture, this shirt has become even more acceptable amongst those looking to unite Latin America. Hence its recent popularity by the region’s presidents and others, who years ago may have chosen a suit for formal occasion but now often choose guayaberas.