Dressing in Cuba

Osmel Almaguer

Photo: Caridad

The streets of our country are carpeted with people trying to lead their day-to-day lives while pursuing a dream: to improve their conditions or those of others, either at the merely material level or on the spiritual plane.

Leading one’s day-to-day life means covering one’s basic and secondary needs.  Looking at clothes, for example, we could ask whether they are in fact an indispensable need? Is survival possible nowadays if we were to do without clothes?

According to the Old Testament, Adam and Eva were not faced with that dilemma at the beginning of time.  And according to scientific research, cave dwellers began to cover their bodies for reasons that had nothing to do with morality; they were compelled to by drastic changes in temperatures, insects and other environmental threats.

Presently an entire culture of dressing exists.  Our attire offers information about possible political and military affiliations, membership in certain social groups, likes and even psychological traits.

Through clothing we can obtain valuable information in the streets about the particularities, values, customs, and environmental or socioeconomic conditions of a nation.

The first thing that jumps out at someone who visits Cuba is our preference for dressing revealingly.  What prevails here is garb that shows off the navel, arms, shoulders, legs, thighs and, on occasion, even small areas of the butt or breasts (in the case of the women), while men sport clothes that are tight and fairly lightweight.

The warm climate could be used as one of the main explanations for this preference, but we could also mention the marked way that we in the Caribbean have for assuming our sexuality.  I believe this latter has influenced the multiethnic composition of our nation, as well as the specific conditions in which we have developed.

Some French friends were surprised when they found the last word in fashion from their country here on the island.  It’s true; there are people who dedicate their lives to trying to look good.  Their relatives send them magazines, money and clothes.

But let’s not forget that most of our people (and I’m refer to us in the time spanning over three different centuries that we have existed as a nation) have had to live through successive economic crises.  Because of that we have developed a special pleasure for living in the present without caring about tomorrow.

The other side of the coin would be that portion of the population that has gotten used to dressing in whatever is available, which has led to the bad combinations of fabrics, colors and styles so abundant in our streets.

Between the two extremes are now people who — owing to not always orthodox means — have enough money but not a sufficient culture of dressing.  They try to highlight their economic wealth with excessive amounts of jewelry, scandalous tastes, and bright and shiny colors at not very appropriate times, etc.

Lastly, I’ll refer to the phenomenon of “recycled” clothes, because a large part of the Cuban population addresses their clothing problem this way.

The sale of imported used clothes began as an alternative during the Special Period crisis of the ‘90s.  Previously it was thought that these were donated, but my father tells me that these are bought by the government in bulk at extremely low prices.  Items are sold to the public at prices that range between the 5 and 200 pesos in domestic currency (25 cents to $10 USD).

As one might suppose, people have already got into the business of recycled clothes on their own.  Among the bulk items imported, some are first rate and others second or third, and so forth.  It turns out that now it’s impossible to find anything good among the bundles for sale because those people who work directly at those places where the goods enter the country take care of selling them to private re-sellers.

Seamstresses have again come into fashion, now as menders of used clothing.  Long sleeves are shortened, and wide shirts originally designed for heavyset people are narrowed.  Everybody takes care of business the best they can as a spirit of the threadbare prevails on our streets.


Osmel Almaguer:Until recently I would to identify myself as a poet, a cultural promoter and a university student. Now that my notions on poetry have changed slightly, that I got a new job, and that I have finished my studies, I’m forced to ask myself: Am I a different person? In our introductions, we usually mention our social status instead of looking within ourselves for those characteristics that define us as unique and special. The fact that I’m scared of spiders, that I’ve never learned to dance, that I get upset over the simplest things, that culminating moments excite me, that I’m a perfectionist, composed but impulsive, childish but antiquated: these are clues that lead to who I truly am.

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