Featuring the creations of Castro's own designer and the "Alicia Alonso" of Cuban Haute Couture
I didn't know there was a "National Day of Cuban Culture" in Jamaica. The idea itself is not incongruous; the two Caribbean islands share a long and complex history, though their roots and colonial experiences are not identical. At the center are two of the most important figures in Cuban history — José Martí, who journeyed to Jamaica to solicit the support of Cuban expatriates and Jamaicans for Cuba's war of independence; and Maceo's mother, Mariana Grajales, who died and was buried there. Many Cuban blacks also trace their roots to Jamaica. Their ancestors migrated to Cuba to cut the sugar cane and stayed. Their English last names still distinguish them from the rest of the Cuban population as do the French surnames of 19th century creole refugees from the Haitian Revolution (1801). Yes, Cuba was a place of asylum for the region's needy as well as for Europe's throughout Cuba's history, that is, until 1959, when it became a place that produced refugeees rather than received them.
A "Cuban National Day in Jamaica," therefore, makes the greatest sense to those acquainted with the shared history of our two islands: Cuba, the largest Spanish-speaking island in the Caribbean; and Jamaica, the largest English-speaking one.
The celebration of this holiday did take a rather unexpected twist this year. The focus of the festivities was a fashion show which featured the latest innovations from Cuba's so-called "fashion industry." Now, the island's chancletera aristocracy has never been obsessed with dressing to the nines. There is nary an Evita Perón among them. On the contrary, though their confiscated pre-Castro mansions have the latest appliances from K-Mart and their larders may be stocked with precious delicacies from a typical American Dollar Store, their wardrobes are not noted for great extravagance. Just as Cuban elites would never be featured on a local version of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," neither would they parade before the proles in the latest Paris fashions, though they may exhibit them in Paris itself. Proletarian drab is still the preferred attire of Cuba's "haves" in order not to inspire resentment among the "have nots." In a society where these are so clearly delineated, it is best for the "haves" to maintain a low profile outside their protected sanctuaries.
Nor is Jamaica the place to exhibit that side of the Revolution. The Cuban fashions featured at the show were aimed at an audience prosperous enough to afford the simple Cuban creations and sophisticated enough to see something chic or even trendy in wearing the Cuban version of the Mao jacket (wait till you see what that is!) The Jamaica Gleaner (founded, 1834) described the show as "short and spicy" (the "short" no doubt being provided by the designers and the "spicy" by the Cuban musicians who entertained the audience). The show was hosted by Castro's ambassador to the island, Gisela García Rivera, who said that it was intended to showcase "Cuba's culture and history." What a novel concept, fashion as propaganda.
The show featured the work of two designers — Carmen Fiol and Emiliano Nelson. No doubt there are many conceptual fashion designers in Cuba, that is, those who doodle designs which are never produced for lack of materia prima or official sponsorship. This show was not about them, but Cuba's recognized designers (that is, recognized by the government). In Cuba, of course, if you want to be an approved (that is, a published) writer you must belong to the "Writers Union;" or if an artist to the "Artists Union" or journalist to the "Journalists Union" (there are no real unions in Cuba because all are governmental entities); and, of course, to design clothes in Cuba you must also have official approval or patronage although there is no official union to enforce revolutionary concepts of fashion technology.
Described as a veteran of Cuba's "fashion industry" with 20 years experience, Nelson boasts such glamorous clients as Fidel Castro and Prince Albert of Monaco. That's it. It would have been interesting to see either of them in one of Nelson's crochet creations. Yes, crochet, which is perfect for the tropics and highly ventilated as climactic conditions dictate, also, all those little spaces greatly economize on yarn. I won't go into elaborate details, but it seems Nelson has designed a crochet bush jacket, something that both mighty white hunters (Fidel and Prince Albert) must sport on safaris.
The other designer is named Carmen Fiol, who, at 83, is the Alicia Alonso of Cuba's so-called fashion industry. Her creations were described as "highly practical," which I take to mean drab and nearly corrugated. Her stuff must really have been awful beyond all description. The Gleaner's politic reviewer was even forced to acknowledge that "the most striking thing about Carmen Fiol is not necessarily her designs but that she still manages to design at her age," much as the most striking thing about Alicia Alonso nowadays is certainly not her dancing but her ability to stand up. Fiol's main attraction was an "all white" line of clothing, which included many free-flowing dresses. Her boldest design were khaki capris with a matching sequined blouse. Bet Prince Albert grabbed those.
"The models," The Gleaner assured its readers, "were just as outstanding as the designs." At this moment, I started replaying in my mind that old tv commercial about a Soviet fashion show, where the models were all huge and stolid and wore the same identical dress, which was transformed into evening wear with the addition of a flashlight and beachwear with a beach ball. But, surely Cuba, at least, still produces beautiful people that could make rags look good, right? I mean, Cuba could match and surpass the protruding bones, hollowed stomachs and prominent cheekbones of the world's most famous models without the necessity of recoursing to anorexia or bulimia. I am surprised that Cuba's models have not been conscripted into service for the fatherland as have its doctors and teamsters, etc. I suppose the models are needed for Cuba's sex tourism industry.
Anonymous says ...
I attended this show. I have covered fashion shows for the past 23 years. The designs from All three designers one Jamaican and 2 Cubans showcased high fashions which were sexy, sophisticated, alluring and elegant.
This blogger who relies on second hand information from the Gleaner has the temerity to present his opinions as facts and accuse the Cubans of using fashion as propaganda. He just hates the idea that there are nations outside of the USA who beleive in the peaceful coexistence of nations and peoples.
11/01/2007 5:24 AM
Manuel A.Tellechea said...
Ah, you're funny, do stick around. Our resident jester, fantomas, essentially agrees with me on everything except on my approach to other Cuban-American bloggers. But you, rara avis, seem to be the genuine article — an unreconstructed Stalinist, and they are so few nowadays that we must tend to each as an endangered species.
First, let me refer to your snobbism: the Jamaica Gleaner is not a good enough source for an event that took place in Jamaica. I get it, the colonials are not to be trusted. I used the word "colonials," but you, of course, are thinking of something else. A Jamaican designer did indeed exhibit his creations at the show, but as my article was about the Cuban fashion industry, he had no place in it.
Our opinions may differ about the quality of these utilatarian-proletarian fashions (the Gleaner reviewer did say they were practical); but that disagreement is only superficial. The real difference between us is that you do not find it in the least ironic that a regime which allows the Cuban people to buy only one pair of underwear per year could still claim to have a fashion industry. But why not? That same regime cuts off the milk ration to children at age 7 and still claims that Cuba's children are the special concern of the state.
The "peaceful coexistence of nations and peoples" is just fine, but what you actually mean is the peaceful coexistence of tyrannies and democracies as a means of preserving the former.