This island country in the Caribbean Sea has been influenced by many cultures. It was originally inhabited by the Taíno and Ciboney tribes, who had originally come from South America. In 1482, the island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, leading to the colonisation of Cuba by the Spanish in the 16th century. Within a century, the indigenous peoples as such were no longer in existence. The Spanish then brought African slaves to the country to work mainly in the production of agricultural goods (especially sugar, coffee and tobacco). After the Spanish–American War of 1898, Cuba was influenced by US American culture and then later during the 20th century by the Soviet Union. All these factors facilitated the emergence of a mixed and multi-ethnic culture in Cuba. Nowadays, the majority of the population is classified as mulatto (mixed African and European descent), 37% claims to be exclusively white, 11% is classified as “negro”, and 1% is of Chinese descent.
The traditional dress of Cuba is also a product of all these multi-cultural effects with the Afro-Spanish culture being especially prevalent. Nowadays, Western clothing is worn for day-to-day use, while the traditional dress is used for festive occasions or for dancing the salsa or rumba. Even though cigars are not pieces of clothing, it is common for both men and women to smoke the traditional Havana cigar.
The traditional Cuban dress, the bata cubana, is made of light-weight materials in bright colours and adorned with ruffles on the sleeves, skirts and around the neck. This dress has its origins in the 19th century with the Spanish flamenco dress. The colours, ruffles and materials used are a mix of African, Spanish, Roma and even French influences, combining carnival, slave and gypsy attire. The rumba dress worn throughout the world when dancing rumba is the bata cubana in a modernised form. The head covering worn with the bata cubana is usually an African-style headdress, which has remained popular in Cuba even after the abolition of slavery in 1865.
As in many other Latin American countries (and elsewhere), a Cuban girl’s 15th birthday celebration, known as a quinceanera or a quinze fiesta, is special as it symbolizes her transition into adulthood. Traditionally, the girls wear an elegant ball gown often accompanied by lace gloves and a parasol, though nowadays, they usually wear modern dresses. Two special symbols are worn: a tiara, symbolizing her triumph over childhood and transition to adulthood, and a sceptre, symbolizing her increased responsibility and authority.
Women also wear, nowadays, the guayabera shirt or dress, fashioned after the traditional men’s shirt (see below). Whereas Cuban men tend to wear white shirts, women frequently use other colours.
Men who are accompanying women dressed in the bata cubana often wear tight trousers with a ruffled shirt, called a rumba shirt. However, the traditional shirt of a Cuban man, which is still worn in daily life, is called the guayabera. It is a lightweight, button-down shirt with two groups of closely spaced pleats on the front and back. It typically has four large pockets on the front and an embroidered design. It has a dress-style collar and buttons, and is worn loose and long with slits a few inches up the sides. The shirt is made of cotton or linen and is often white (though many different colours are used nowadays).
The origin of this style of shirt is disputed: Cuba, Mexico, Spain or Thailand. One story says the shirts originated in Cuba’s Sancti Spiritus province and was made by farm workers who turned linen sheets into shirts with large pockets to hold their cigars. Another story talks about a wealthy 18th century Cuban rancher who imported this style of shirt from Spain. Whatever its origins, this type of shirt is worn throughout Latin America and in today’s Cuba, it is required wear at state functions for both female and male government officials.
Cuban men traditionally wear a straw hat to combat the effects of the sun.
Ethnic Dress in the United States: A Cultural Encyclopedia edited by Annette Lynch, Mitchell D. Strauss