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FASHION TRENDS: A look at what we're wearing.

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The traditional Mexican guayabera is being adopted as favored garb by everyone from European tourists to American hipsters.

April 02, 1999|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After some 100 years as a staple among Mexican men, the guayabera--the loose-fitting dress shirts distinguished by rows of vertical pin tucks, four front pockets and, sometimes, embroidery--is now hip and favored by non-Latinos and Latinos alike.

Also known as the Cuban or Mexican wedding shirt because of its traditional use in nuptials and other formal functions, they have become as ubiquitous as aloha shirts. Guayaberas are the new alternative.

The latest enthusiasts, including British and Japanese tourists, flock to Olvera Street and the Santa Ana Fiesta Village to pick up guayaberas for $18 to $50.

Vintage stores and flea markets hawk secondhand versions for as little as $8. Established vendors sell them on the Internet. And a few designers are updating the original look and asking as much as $52 for a more "original" translation.

No matter where one scores a guayabera, the reasons cited for its growing popularity are the same: It can be formal and casual, ready for day or evening. It's slightly ornate, even pretty, but still very masculine. It's perfect in steamy weather and steamier nightclubs. The loose-fitting form worn outside pants and its standard side vents make it comfortable and acceptable among young men who have a genetic aversion to tucking in shirts. And it's cheap.

Among fashionistas, it's also "ethnic."

But the mainstreaming of the guayabera and other shirts hailing from the Philippines, Indonesia and Guatemala goes beyond its status as simply something exotic, a factor that influenced 1960s hippies who cannibalized Third World native dress because it was so far out from what their parents and the establishment wore.

Beyond celebrating multiculturalism, the shirts reflect the changing face of our population and its influence on pop culture.

Modern-day wearers are also flirting with a romantic past. Lounge lizards, among the first to slip into the shirts, aspire to the image of an elderly Cuban sucking on a hand-rolled stogie and wearing his finest guayabera.

For the New York City-based Suave & Deboner line, symbols from the lounge-swing revival appear in lieu of the traditional embroidered designs. Shirts are stitched with cigars, cocktail shakers, martini glasses, horseshoes, dice and fanned decks of cards.

Vintage tattoo flash art--swallows and hearts--as well as pop motifs--the shapely figures that appear on truck mud flaps--are all game.

"We go for images that are kitschy, fun and playful," says designer Jackie Grossman, who owns the 3-year-old line with husband Paul Debitt and friend Greg Precht. "We tried to offer things without embroidery, but people are not interested. They want the images."

The line, which is made in Mexico, delivers more than men's and women's shirts. There are guayabera-inspired A-line dresses, long skirts and jackets. Grossman crosses a cowboy shirt with guayabera elements and adds embroidery of a cowgirl motif. Black or powder-blue satin, '50s-style cocktail dresses are pin-tucked down the front; pink and lavender handbags match the guayabera-like sundresses.

Modified With Spiffy

Embroidery, Buttons

Dana Point designer Mario Melendez has also modified the classic shirt for his Maji collection. He dropped the pleats, boosted the size of the embroidered roses and replaced conventional plastic buttons with mother-of-pearl or silver metal ones embossed with a Mayan symbol. The changes hiked the retail price to $55, but, says Melendez, "you get what you pay for--both in quality and originality."

Melendez, who remembers his father and grandfather in guayaberas, says he "was attracted to the essence of the shirt. People cherish aloha shirts, but these should be cherished too. They've been around a lot longer."

Exactly how long isn't known. Martha Vasquez, owner of Olverita's Village, an emporium on Olvera Street that stocks an impressive selection of costumes and clothing from Mexico, says the shirt dates back a century or so. The name derives from the Mayan guayabana, loosely translated as "throw over."

Yucatan is the only state that makes the authentic guayabera shirts, she says, "so people began calling them 'guayaberas' instead of just 'shirts.' "

She says that in the past, "status and wealth were determined by the number of pleats. The more, the better off you were."

Cloth, be it a cotton-poly blend, silk or linen, is still an indicator. The silk "Copacabana" model is also dubbed the "executive" or "presidential" style in Mexico and Cuba because of its frequent use by capitalist and political leaders.

Crossing Borders and

Adding Little Touches

The proximity of the Yucatan to Cuba meant an exchange of more than tourists and cuisine. Interest in guayaberas spread to wherever Latino men had to tolerate sultry weather, from Mexico City to Miami. Vasquez blames Spanish expats for taking it to the Philippines, where a similar-looking shirt without the embroidery is worn.

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