Calling the Cuban Fashion Police, Urgente!

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Along with the fidelity conundrum, questionable Cuban fashion has proven rich and popular fodder at Here is Havana. Lamentably, the fury of dubious style has only quickened with new access to knock-offs, bling, and cheese funneled from places like Hollywood and Hialeah. And don’t even get me started on the mania for saline/silicone tits/ass that everyone is chasing here…(see note 1).

But what’s piquing my interest lately is the non-surgical – namely bad haircuts, tacky accessories, and unsuitable footwear and clothing. Part of the problem, explains my 24-year old friend Omar, is that Cuban “fashion” appropriates, rather than innovates.

“There are no personajes,” he says. “We’re not used to creating our own style or seeing anything unique. I mean, people look at me funny when I wear my red pants. Red pants! The other day, I was out with my friend Rodolfo who had on a kilt – an authentic Scottish kilt (see note 2). Imagine the shit he took! Everyone was staring and pointing at him when a guy walked by and said: ‘you’re wearing a salla!’ Then he looked Rodolfo square in the eye and said: ‘but, brother, you’re in talla.” (You’re in a skirt, but man, you’re rockin’ it!). Needless to say, Skirt Boy is the exception to the rule.

But as original as this may seem here, even this is appropriated (and dated – Angus Young, anyone?) One factor, certainly, is the unquestioning, indiscriminate glamour many Cubans ascribe to anything foreign. For example, a compliment like ‘Nice necklace/shoes/dress’ is invariably answered with: ‘es desde a fuera’ (it comes from abroad) – as if this were explanation enough for its quality or style (see note 3).

If you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve surely marveled/recoiled at some of the national fashion. Skin tight jeans bedazzled with Playboy bunnies; spinning $ and pot leaf belt buckles as big as my hand; and couples in matchy-matchy outfits are de rigueur, as are back fat, camel toes, and muffin tops (what I term ‘congris belly’). More than passing trends, these unfortunate looks hang around here like scabies on a hippy. I’m afraid these may never go out of style and I wonder about the up and coming looks Cubans are sporting. Are they too, destined to become part of the uniform?

(A brief caveat: the last time I wrote on this topic, some readers accused me of being harsh and judgmental. I get that much of the clothing and accessories people wear here is directly related to economic possibilities, but there is no excuse for bad taste – even class or wealth. Furthermore, once you see a chick in Lucite heels trying to negotiate the white sands of Playa Santa María, clutching her macho to remain upright, I think you’d agree. If not, you’ll probably not cotton to this post much…)

Fake Hair – Remember when I wrote about Cubans taking the disposable part out of the disposable diaper equation? This behavior is a result of wanting the new thing (i.e. disposable rather than cloth diapers) but not having the money or access for the upkeep). Well imagine a ‘fall’ of synthetic hair a decade beyond its expiration date and you get an idea of some of the nasty rat’s nests women attach to their real hair here. No matter if it’s color correct or not, although to their credit, muchachas and matrons who favor fake hair generally try to match it as closely to their natural color as possible. Recently I snapped a photo of a mom attending her daughter’s graduation – a big, dress up kind of day, as you may imagine – with one of these hair pieces. In this case it was a swirl rather than a fall, but I’m fairly certain this was simply the same dog with new fleas: an old hair piece cut and fixed up one last time before it’s relegated to wherever synthetic, flammable accessories go to die.

Personally I’m not too surprised by this fake hair folly: after all, the mullet can still be seen here. Very unfortunate indeed. Which brings us to the next fashion foible:

Bad Hair – There has been a pandemic of bad hair around here as of late, with some styles taking the offense to new heights – both literally and figuratively. Here I’m talking about the yonki. Like me, you may be tempted to pronounce this like those tasty little potato dumplings from Italy, but do so and you’ve pooched any chance of passing for a Cuban: in these parts this hair style is actually pronounced like a strung out heroin addict. Intrigued simply for its rabid popularity, I started investigating why Cuban youth are raging for MC Hammer-era fades known as ‘junkies’ when I discovered the term actually comes from the regguetón star El Yonki.

These hairdos are, quite simply, ridiculous – particularly the 3” high version. Just as popular (and ridiculous if you ask me and if you’re still reading, I assume you do) are the ‘faux hawks’ kids are favoring these days. Guys: do you not have the cojones for a real mohawk? Now that school’s out, you have no excuse (see note 4).

Absurd Footwear – I have some basic rules about shoes. #1: If they’re broken in and still hurt when you walk, they’re defeating the purpose. #2: Ditto if you’re unable to walk in your shoes or they’re inappropriate for the context (eg stilettos on cobblestone streets/in church; come-fuck-me shoes on sand). These rules conform in some way or another to my cardinal rule for fashion, friends, and lovers: form follows function. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I frown upon Uggs worn with Daisy Dukes – something that is also catching on here, though the boots are knock off pleather (that’s Conner-speak for plastic leather) numbers made by Chinese child labor.

Then there are knee-high Converse sneakers and these weird bondage/Xena Warrior Princess-type sandals with leather ankle cuffs. Not only are these fashions entirely too hot for a Havana summer, they’re fugly (more Conner-speak meaning fuckin’ ugly). To be fair, visitors tell me the same thing when I wear jeans (the hot part, not the fugly part). While researching this post, my fashion consultant, who is here on a long overdue visit (for familial, not fashion reasons), assured me that most of these trends, plus scoop belly overalls – perfect for flaunting that congris paunch! – and bubble dresses (known as bombaches) are still in style only in the Mississippi backwoods and Kansas trailer parks.

That’s the bad news. The good news is Cubanas work these lamentable trends more beautifully than anyone else. Cuba remains a country of gorgeousness any way you cut it, no matter the cut of your jib.

1. A top plastic surgeon here assures me Cuban men are just as amped to go under the knife as their cubana counterparts. As you may imagine, the men go in for love handle removal and chest/muscle amplification. I guess good old fashioned exercise is just too taxing?

2. Rodolfo was wearing underwear; I confirmed, so not 100% authentic.

3. Another common response to such a comment is: ‘it’s yours,’ followed by the person taking it off and handing it to you or says ‘borrow it whenever you like.’

4. Cuban kids from kindergarten through high school wear uniforms and have to conform to hair regulations as well – although they’ve been relaxed a little bit as of late, wild hair is still cause for demerits in many schools.


Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

48 responses to “Calling the Cuban Fashion Police, Urgente!

  1. oh connor.. you so make my day.. I love your posts..e
    ver since we used your good times app in Cuba in Feb, I have become a huge fan.. keep them rolling it.. each time I read them they take me back to Havana!!

    • As we say here: barbaro! I love it when I can help folks “feel” Havana – it’s hard being far away and (re)connecting folks to this place is part of my mission.

      Thanks for writing in (and supporting the app!). Cheers.

  2. Dan

    Is it just me or are Cuban women showing a lot more extra poundage than they did a dozen years ago? and wearing exactly the same clothes doing it!

  3. Quepasa

    Ay: “the yonki” , or the “pollito” look as I use to call it. You walk into a club and it is like walking into a chicken-farm. 😦 Me do not like !.

    Rather good looking guys just lose their appeal with this punk haircut. And they all must have it.!! Young and not so young, at least if they still have some hair left.
    Can you image a chubby Cuban in his late 30s- 40s with this haircut!!! :-(. Were did all the ” mangos ” go. !?
    (No wander there hasn’t been any gel in the shops for months !)

    • Ah yes, the gel craze! Thankfully, there are still some “mangones” por aqui – but please don’t give them any ideas about the temba yonki, dios mio!

  4. pamela simon

    Conner, as always, you hit the nail on the head. As you know, I just returned from Havana and was faced with this fashion predicament. I have friends who work in fashion in M0ntreal and who donated clothes to my sweet little Cuban 25 year old girl. The brands were BCBG, Michael Kors, Josef. My little girl loved the shoes (high heels), the shorts and biknis, but didn’t seem to like the pencil skirts and dresses that were knee length. She told me that she prefers very short skirts. Her response was, “I am Cuban and this is what Cuban women wear.” So much for high fashion and Michael Kors. I assume she will sell the clothes to someone. I even brought her a fabulous bag purchased in Paris. Her response? Where are the colored contacts I asked for? A simple thank you would have been nice. I know she did appreciate most things but geez!
    On the other hand, the other family I brought clothing and accessories for were very grateful. The 13 year old daughter loved her Swarovski earrings and brand new Coach purse (another donation that had not been used).
    Anyway, I saw all of the fashion faux pas you write about but according to my 25 year old, the fashion in Cuba is very distinct and the brands that they are accustomed to are Euro brands such as Armani (sorry, none of that in my bag).
    BTW: I read in Lonely Planet that there are stores selling these brands including Chanel. I thought they were in Galleria de Paseo but that mall is simply a grocery store, appliance store, and jazz club. Where are these items located and who is Havana hase the money to purchase luxury items and plastic surgery?

    • Hola Pamela and welcome to Cuba! Of course she was disappointed about the color contacts: “ojos claros” are all the rage (even if they’re fake and in fact, folks w naturally light eyes in Cuba – mostly green or hazel, rarely blue but sometimes – are revered in their way.) Unfortunately, Cuban chiquitas trade them and loan them like they do tube tops and sandals and Granma had to publish an article about how nasty and unsanitary it is due to the uptick in ulcerated corneas and other conditions brought on by dirty loaner colored contacts. I remember a friend of mine a long time ago being surprised that her gift of Godiva chocolates was hardly given a second glance which led her to conclude: next time Im just bringing Hersheys. This is a good approximation of the situation you describe.

      Branding like you know in Montreal holds little water here – few even know what Coach is, let alone could tell the real thing from a fake. (And those that can likely don’t need them to be gifted!) Pearls to swine so to speak as far as the haute couture goes and the profit from those gifts will go towards the luxury items/plastic surgery many desire. (note: plastic surgery here used to be free but isn’t any longer since it has become so popular). I always recd people bring useful gifts or money (the most useful of all since then people can buy what they really need). There are many people with $$ to shop at the boutiques in La Maison, Comodoro and certain spots in Habana Vieja. Im a little out of this loop since my small expendable cash goes to things other than clothes and such.

  5. pamela simon

    Thanks Conner. I had asked her to send a list of what she needed and I brought everything EXCEPT the bloody colored lenses. She models and loves wearing them for shoots but my theory was at the time (and still is), I will help with the cost of cell phone bills occasionally when Cubacel has the double promotion but she’s on her own when it comes to colored lenses. I do have a bottom line. My husband thinks she is using me but I still like her and enjoyed the beautiful dinner she cooked for me and my friend even if I did help with some of the grocery money. You certainly know more about this mindset than I do but I always hark back to the statement by my friend
    Humberto who continually told me: during this last trip: trust no one. I am beginning to see the light.



    • Always good to have a bottom line, but if you’re ok with it and they’re ok with it, what’s the harm? That’s my thinking anyway. After 10 years here, Ive learned some ropes (some the very hard way! about gifting). Cheers

      • pamela simon

        So what have you learned the hard way about gifting? Your response will give me valuable insight.

      • Some general rules of thumb, Conner-style: (or what I learned as 10 years as a Yuma in Cuba)
        #1: family first – my tribe comes first and foremost
        #2: prioritize vulnerable populations – not vulnerable vs where I come from (that would be almost everybody), but in the Cuban context. this means the elderly, the ill, and those families who have no source of hard currency
        #3: prioritize medicine, educational, and work-related needs
        #4: assume I’ll have to pay all costs, including purchase, shipping and baggage overage
        #5: “Frens” are not eligible for gifts

      • pamela simon

        thanks for the clarification Conner. So I guess this means colored contact lenses are still out! JaJa!

  6. Elizabeth

    Your posts always make me laugh so much! I’m cuban, I’ve lived in Miami for 8 years but I visit every year and I’m going next week, now I know what clothes to take and not to worry about my lovehandles lol!

  7. pamela simon

    Another thing I noticed on this trip was the increase in tattoos. I did not notice that many in March but in July I definitely noticed an increase. In Canada, young people are covered in tattoos but in Cuba it seems to have caught on fairly recently. I guess this is another hot trend right up there with colored lenses and a new set of breasts.

    • Lets clarify here for those who haven’t been here in a while or ever: there are some TERRIBLE tattoos happening over here, which is uncalled for since there are some very good ones too. A friend of mine showed me his new ink proudly the other day: a huge sailing ship/galleon – and he’s not a sailor – and one that says “Erika” but he declined to elaborate when pressed!

  8. Hi Conner, peals of laughter always ensue after reading your blog! Thanks. Male footwear for me is another Cuban fashion phenomenon. Long, pointy shoes with as much bling as you can muster. Steel/metal toed as a preference. A) Are they deliberately trying to enlarge the size of their feet? B) Are they trying to kill us chicas who dance by using their shoes as a lethal weapons? Some perpective from one who knows please?

    • thanks for the big ups. What’s in now are grape purple suede loafers for the gents. had 2 guys coming on to us at Los Van Van, and the friends had not coordinated their apparel apparently since they both stepped out on the town with these fashion faux pas!!

  9. Jen

    @ Quepasa: Ay Dios!…i just returned from Stgo and the “inking” i saw there was spray-on with airbrushes. (la cara de Che of course being popular)…did you really see the real thing?

    • pamela simon

      absolutely. My little Cuban daughter’s sister has a tattoo parlor called Amaro in Havana. The tattoos are real and very nice.

      • Jen

        oh yes, of course, there are some nicely executed ink on adults…i was referring to Quepasa seeing kids getting real ones…yikes

    • Quepasa

      Yes I did, for sure. In Sueño ! The real thing with electric needle and everything!! I actually stopped up and stared for a while. Normally nothing surprises me any-more, but this got my attention.

  10. Candysita

    That’s exactly why I spend so much time in Cuba!

    Doesn’t matter if I have a congris belly, if my clothes are tight…all is acceptable. North Americans have been programmed to think only thin women are attractive. Not so, for as my Cuban brother says about Rubenesque women: “more to love!”

    The one fashion trend that I do not understand is Cuban womens’ refusal to go “commando”. They insist on wearing underwear (mostly nylon) 24-7, even to bed. That coupled with skin tight jeans and the resulting camel toes results in a never ending cycle of Monilia, which they then claim is from washing with bad water! Try to convince them otherwise is useless (Cubanas know everything about everything!), and with yoghurt in scarce supply or non-existant, no cures at the pharmacy, high sugar diets, skin folds in obese people….well, you get the picture and it is not a pretty one.

    • Hey Candy – agree w you totally about the broader appreciation different body types, standards of beauty etc. In fact, here, Im at a disadvantage because Im so flaca. Im often told I have to add “masita” to be more attractive here. This is changing, at least here in Havana, as people start adhering more and more to what beauty means outside of Cuba, though, thankfully, I don’t think its ever going to be lost completely (ie: this has always been more of an ass appreciation culture than tits which is the reverse from where I come from and for which Im grateful).

      On the commando thing: reason #337 to love hippies! (which is why in my family we like to call it going “Woodstock”). Thanks for the observation.

      By the way: there is TONS of yogurt here in HAvana. In the dollar stores of course you can almost always find it (even the probiotic type) but even better is the muchacha who comes to my door every 3rd day with a fresh “pepino” (1.5 liter bottle) of artesenal yogurt made in Habana Campo. $1.

  11. Ophelia

    Hi Conner,

    I love your posts about Cuban fashion, keep them coming! Regarding the places in Cuba where you can buy high-end luxury goods, I can tell you about my experience during my last visit to Cuba in 2010. I visited quite a few shopping malls and stores in hotels, as well as the famed La Maison (which, growing up, my relatives whispered in awe about). I have lived in both Europe and the U.S and am pretty familiar with mainstream brands on both sides of the Atlantic, but I saw almost nothing of these in the stores. What I saw were some well-know shoe brands, a spin-off (read “cheap”) line of Oscar de la Renta clothes and quite a few clothing lines with Italian-sounding names that I had never seen sold in Italy. La Maison was extremely disappointing. The top level, which holds the largest clothing store, was half empty, lots of empty clothing racks and stands. Whatever clothing was being sold was in the traditional Cuban fashion: lots of garish colors, mini everything, and stiletto heels. No Ralph Lauren, Dior, or Chanel to be seen.

    I also took a look at the perfume stores. Many of the hotel stores and some in La Habana Vieja were selling knock-offs of famous perfumes like Chanel No.5 and YSL Opium, along with the originals in the same place! I was quite surprised by all of this and concluded that, either the Cuban elite frequent different establishments than the ones I visited, or that luxury shopping in Cuba was all smoke and mirrors,

    I also second your opinion that Cubans attach glamour and superior quality to anything foreign. I like some Suchel perfumes and asked a relative which ones are the most popular so I could buy and gift them, and she responded with “Es que la gente de aquí quiere perfumes de afuera.”

    • Thanks for writing in Ophelia and updating me on the status of high fashion here. Once again, seems like the real high end stuff is coming from abroad.

      Suchel, really??!! For those not in the know, Suchel is the Cuban perfume/deoderant/hand cream manufacturer. I don’t wear scents but I have had many a good smelling Cuban walk by in what I assume is Suchel (men smell better than women in my opinion, but all could use a lesson in how to apply: sometimes I come home from clubs with cologne on my taste buds)


    • Candysita

      Very interesting, Ophelia! I have found that the high-end luxury goods are never, ever found in stores (at least here in the Oriente) but rather in private homes. The process in finding, for example, a blinged-out pair of white jeans, goes something like this: Walk around the park, discreetly ask several people where one might find them, have one woman say she’ll be back, time for a coffee and a smoke before she returns, follow her to meet another fellow who then leads you down several blocks , go into someone’s home, have the boy try on the pants in the household bedroom, haggle over the price and voila! the kid has new pants for his 15th birthday .

      • thanks for the informative comment Candysita on the “mecanica” of procuring goods in the Oriente and perhaps more importantly, that there in the east, blinged out white jeans are considered “high end luxury goods!” 😉

  12. Ro

    One thing that’s been bothering me lately is high heels on little girls — and I mean LITTLE: 8, 9, 10 years old. And they’re not Mary Janes. Particularly disturbing were the heeled slides I saw one little pequeña wearing — she must have been about 4. How the heck can a little girl play in HEELED SLIDES??? I’m no health expert, but I’m sure the obsession with heels is one — one of many, i’m sure, but an unnecessary one — of the causes of all of the lower back, knee and neck problems suffered by most Cuban women over 40 that I know.
    Of course this involves all kinds of cultural questions about sexuality and femininity, which HereisHavana has taken up more than once…

  13. utomosetyo2008

    nice interesting post

  14. I loved the post, but I have to say that as a ( Cuban- part of the diaspora) person born and raised in the Mid-West US those styles have not been relegated to Mississippi and Kansas. Nope. I spent all of last year and the beginning of this one sliding from shear horror when I went out to complete numbness- particularly with teens-20-somethings. By the time I went to Cuba (a couple of months ago- 1st time, your app was awesome :D) very few styles/outfits could make me blink twice. In fact the most incredible (and cute in theory and principle) thing I saw was a very, very, very large woman in a very, very tiny bikini.

    • So wait, there’s a difference between Kansas/Mississippi and the Mid West?!

      (just a little NYer/East Coast liberal schmuck humor for you there…)

    • Pamela Simon

      And I was the only woman at the pool at the Riviera wearing a full piece suit, no jewelry, no makeup, and actually swimming. The nerve of me!

  15. tonantonieta

    Absolutely true.
    I write a blog on Cuban material culture named CUBA MATERIAL and would very much like to link some of your posts, like this one. Do you give permission?

    • Hola. Glad you found me. Your project is an interesting concept (though we differ in many opinions). I’m not sure how I fit in since my blog is in English and my perspective doesn’t fit into the “vitrina” or “maleta” of Cuba Material.

      Still, in the spirit of intercambio, lets try this: I give permission to link to this post and let’s see what happens.

      If I sound a wee bit reticent, it’s because I am: you’re blog is in Spanish, you’re in Florida, and Im assuming your readership will be hostile to what I write. I hope by linking to my blog Im proven wrong! but I don’t need more hostility/toxicity/vitriole in my life and Ive tried hard (and successfully) to keep politics out of Here is Havana.


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  19. acanuck.

    This is all so familiar. I can say that my wife at 40 years is gradually emerging from these styles and into more tasteful fashions. Except on disco night and her belief that the knife solves all problems. Nothing I can say will change that. Forget excersizing, too hard and takes too long. Fortunately their day to day lifestyle provides plenty of it.
    Disco night is their time and the fashion competition unrelenting. They eye each other and whisper their opinions between friends. Expressions of disapproval evident.

    Canada has had a positive affect on her fashion ideas. I drop her off at a mall in the morning and pick her up near closing. This is her favorite activity when she is here. She buys cheap stuff to sell at GT Boutique better stuff for herself at Sirens her favorite store. She can spend hours in there trying on things but is very selective on what she buys. Fortunately her preference for sales items prevails.
    She has a walk in closet stuffed with apparel and shoes she will no longer wear. Her friends are always borrowing, buying, or trading. The life expectancy of most items is limited.
    She is amazingly just as beautiful as in her younger days and has managed the weight issue very well. My friends in Canada have a hard time believing her age. The young guys in Cuba pay attention as do all the guys here.

    Our son at 13 years is right into all these fashions. Takes longer for him to get ready to go out than it does my wife. She dresses him as if he is her favorite Ken doll. His shoe collection rivals hers. He outgrows everything so fast.
    When you marry a cubana you need to know what you are getting into. You need a sense of humour.

  20. Maree

    Hi Conner,

    What a fabulous blog, Don’t I wish I had found this 4 months ago before travelling to Cuba in May 2013. Wow what an eye opener that was. I love, love, loved it, though I did return to Australia ever grateful for the standard of living we enjoy. Just wondering if you can answer this for me. Whilst in Havana we saw Cuban men dressed head to toe in white complete with a white man bag and more than once saw said white clad gents carrying rather ornamental white umbrellas with them as well. Is there a particular cultural reason for this? Please tell me it is not a fashion thing.

  21. Angela

    great post. I just found your blog while researching for my trip to Havana next month. I am a world traveler who generally knows what to pack, but I am finding myself obsessing about what to wear in Havana. Can you help me out by answering some questions? I’m a plus-sized woman living with all the baggage that comes with it as an American. Do the big women over 40 cover up and dress like old grandmas? Would I stand out too much if I wear sundresses and short skirts?

    Thanks for the insight.

    • Angela: you are going to be so pleasantly surprised! One of the things I love about Cuba is how cuban women embrace their sexiness, enjoy their body image, no matter what shape and size. You can wear ANYTHING you want. Including lycra (all the rage here). You are going to love this place!! Have fun.

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