Dressing Sharp in Hot Weather: The Guayabera

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The story goes like this.

About three hundred years ago a farmer’s wife took a needle and thread to her husband’s work shirt. She sewed four large pockets onto the front of the shirt, enabling her husband to easily pick and carry guayabas (guavas).

Past this – well, that’s where the arguments start.

The Cubans claim it originated near the Yayabo river in Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. The Mexicans believe the Yucatans invented the shirt and the Cubans copied it. Then there are other stories of it originating in Thailand or the Republic of the Philippines, and then making its way to Central America via Chinese slave traders.

I will only say this: The guayabera is a functional and stylish hot weather garment that should be in more men’s wardrobes.

The purpose of this article is to introduce you to this classic men’s shirt – and hopefully help you see it’s something you can wear on those sweltering hot summer days.

What Is a Guayabera?

The guayabera is a traditional Latin American garment. Most of the guayaberas in the United States originate from factories in and around Miami, Florida, which are often owned by Cuban-Americans.

The basic features that define a guayabera are:

  • Either two or four patch pockets on the shirt front
  • Two vertical rows of either small pleats (actually called tuxes) and/or embroidery
  • Straight hem meant to be worn untucked

Different artisans over the years have taken the liberty to create variations of the garment, such as adjustable buttoning slits at the sides of the shirt, french cuffs, short sleeves, and even no pockets. For the purposes of this article, I will include them all.

As for color, white and light pastel colors are the most common and traditional, but like any shirt, guayaberas now come in both traditional and brighter colors as young men have asked for more variety.

100% cotton or 100% linen are used to make the highest quality guayaberas. Light weaves are prized in hot, humid climates. A thriving tourist market has led to production of lower-cost, part-synthetic guayaberas that are sold as affordable souvenirs; depending on the weave, they are fine for most men, but if you can, try to find one made from natural material.

Wearing the Guayabera: Casual Style

In the United States, the guayabera is mostly used for a casual shirt, worn without a jacket. The long, even hem is meant to hang over the trouser waist and belt.

There are no real rules on what you can and can’t wear with a guayabera. Jeans or other tough work pants are a nod to its working-class origins. Cotton slacks are typical dress-casual antecedents. Shorts look a little touristy, but it is a popular tourist shirt. You can do that look if you’re comfortable with it.

The kind of guayabera you buy will affect which pants and other garments it goes well with. You can loosely break guayaberas down into three broad categories:

  1. Practical working clothes – These guayaberas are meant for field work or made to look like they’re meant for field work. The color is light to reflect the sun, the vertical embroidery is often pierced to let more air in, and the base fabric is very light and gauzy. The patterns are usually simple and in light-colored thread, or in many cases in the same color as the base material itself.
  2. Festive clothing – This is where we get the “Mexican wedding shirt” style of guayabera, which can be long or short-sleeved. The vertical bands are typically embroidered in more than one color, and the base color can be anything from white to black, with bright pastels a common compromise between festive color and light reflection.
  3. Tourist clothing – Very brightly-colored guayaberas with loud, contrasting colors are the Latin American version of the Hawaiian shirt. They’re meant for vacationing Americans and are usually made cheaply from synthetic fabrics.

Working guayaberas complement jeans or cotton slacks. Festive guayaberas do as well, but can also be paired with more colorful pants or with dress slacks made from tropical weight wool or linen. Tourist guayaberas can go with anything you wear on vacation – they’re going to look loud and silly no matter what, so go ahead and wear them with shorts. Need help with how to wear shorts? Here’s an older AoM article on the subject.

The overall theme here is versatility: men have been wearing guayabera-style shirts for centuries. At one point or another they’ve been paired with everything. Be assertive and wear yours with whatever looks good. Here’s a great example of guayaberas being worn in a more fashion-forward way.

And age? Doesn’t matter if you’re seven, seventeen, or seventy. They look great and are incredibly comfortable. In fact in this interview, master guayabera-maker Rafael Contreras discusses why more US men should embrace this simple and masculine garment.

The Guayabera as Business and Formal Wear

It’s not widely known in the United States (at least outside of Florida), but several Latin American and Caribbean island nations have adopted the guayabera, formally or informally, as a form of national business wear.

Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba (where it is the official dress garment as of 2010) all recognize the guayabera as a form of “national dress.” Their political leaders often wear them at public events. Just type in Summit of the Americas and you’ll see dozens of Latin American leaders wearing guayaberas alongside counterparts wearing full suits and ties.

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