Women wearing colourful cuban dresses

Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing in the Greater Antilles and Lucayan Archipelago

Welcome back to another week of the anthropology in fashion series, where we learn about the traditional dresses from one region in the world every week. From this week we’ll start looking into traditional clothing from the different regions in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean is a region in the Americas that comprises several hundred islands and coasts in and around the Caribbean Sea. The area is located southwest of the Gulf of Mexico and north of continental South America. There are currently 13 sovereign nations and 17 dependencies in the Caribbean that are split between the North and South American continents. They are also grouped into 4 sub-regions, namely, the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, the ABC Islands and the Lucayan Archipelago.

In today’s post, we look at cultural clothing from the Greater Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago.

The Lucayan archipelago refers to the Bahamas and the British Overseas Territory, Turks and Caicos. These groups of islands, islets and cays are situated in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Caribbean Sea. They are still, however, considered to be a part of the Caribbean by many. The Lucayan archipelago is located north of the Greater Antilles and southeast of Florida.

The Greater Antilles sub-region refers to the larger islands that make up nearly 90% of the landmass and population in the Caribbean. It is located southeast of Florida, south of the Bahamas and north of the Lesser Antilles. It refers to the islands of Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, The Cayman Islands and Hispaniola Island, which make up Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Factors Influencing Clothing in the Greater Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago

The Caribbean overall is a multi-cultural and multi-racial region in the world. These two sub-regions in the Caribbean, in particular, have a diverse cultural heritage due to their indigenous, African, Asian and European influences. Since Christopher Columbus discovered the New World in 1492, the Caribbean has had a turbulent history characterized by genocide, colonization, slavery and migration. This is reflected in the culture of the islands. And traditional clothing is a medium to express the cultural identity and heritage of a place.

Influence of different cultures on Traditional Clothing

After the discovery of the New World, European powers such as Spain, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands started to arrive on the islands and establish their colonies between the 15th and 18th centuries. The arrival of the Europeans also introduced clothing that covered the entire body.

Their arrival also meant that the Arawak population declined, the enslavement of the remaining native population and transporting slaves from Africa and Asia to the Caribbean. This is where indigenous, African, European and Indian cultures combine to form a unique Caribbean culture.

Through trade, the region was introduced to a type of cotton cloth called madras, from India, while the different ways to wear clothes came from Africa. For example, wrapping the head with a cloth.

The first non-European dresses on the islands were very basic uniforms for people working in the plantations. It was initially a shabby wrapping cloth that evolved into a shabby tunic with a rope tied at the waist, serving the function of a belt. To protect themselves from the harsh heat and sunlight, the labourers began wearing broad-brimmed hands made of straw. Slaves working indoors would wrap their heads with a cloth.

illustration of women in plantations
Women tending young sugar canes in Jamaica, 1922.  Image Credit:  The Print Collector via Jacobin

On holidays and Sundays, slaves were permitted to wear clothes of their choice. They would also save whatever minimal amount of payment they would receive to buy colourful saris and other wrapping clothes. On special occasions, they would wear the creole dress with European motifs. This dress was invented taking inspiration from the 18th-century French bourgeoisie fashion. At the time, the Scottish tartan motif was popular. Madras cloth at the time was the fabric of choice for the upper class. Today, it is an important part of fashion in the Greater Antilles and the Caribbean as a whole.

What was clothing like before the arrival of Europeans?

According to Colombus’ accounts of his visit to the Caribbean islands, the indigenous Taino people of the Greater Antilles wore very little clothing. The Taino people were a subgroup of the Arawak people and the original inhabitants of the Greater Antilles.

Men and women would remain bare, but they’d adorn their bodies with body paint and jewellery made of gold, shells, rocks, feathers and bones. They’d occasionally also wear strips of cotton around their calves and upper arms.

Married women, however, would cover the lower half of their bodies with a loincloth called a nagua. Nagua was made of natural fibres such as cotton and processed bark fibres. Cotton had been cultivated in this region before the arrival of Europeans.

drawing of taino people
Illustration of taino people. Image Credit: Extreme Hotels

The length of the nagua would vary depending on the social ranking of the woman. For example, the wife of a tribal chief wore a nagua that reached her ankles. Whereas, women at a lower social ranking wore shorter nagua.

The Lucayan Archipelago was originally inhabited by the Lucayan people, a branch of the Taino subgroup. Lucayan women would wear cotton skirts made of cotton, similar to the nagua, after hitting puberty. Men would remain naked most of the time, but they would occasionally wear loincloths made of cotton or woven leaves. Additionally, they would wear jewellery made of feathers and bone, headbands and waistbands or belts. They would also tattoo themselves and paint their bodies and faces.

This mode of clothing was most practical to their lifestyle and the tropical weather.

Influence of Climate on Clothing

Other than history, the occasion, social status, age, marital status and climate also influence the way traditional clothes are designed here. In fact, after history, perhaps climate is the biggest factor that influences the type of clothing found here.

The Caribbean is a famous tropical destination, so, the region is known to have a warm climate. The Tropic of Cancer passes through the Bahamas while the Greater Antilles is located between the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. This signifies that the climate in these two sub-regions ranges from sub-tropical to tropical. The islands have an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius all year round. Summers are hot and humid, winters are warm and dry and the wet season, between July and November, experiences heavy rainfall and hurricanes.

Due to colonial influences, traditional clothing in the Greater Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago is rather modest. To make them more suitable for the weather, they are made of light fabrics such as linen and cotton. The colours also tend to be light as they reflect heat. The clothes also have room for air circulation, allowing the skin to breathe. Traditional clothes today are mostly reserved for cultural events and special occasions. Everyday attire, on the other hand, is more casual, consisting of western-style summer clothes.

 

Now that we have a little bit of background about how clothes here evolved and the factors that have shaped clothing in these regions, let’s finally look into some of the traditional dresses found in a few places in the Greater Antilles and Lucayan Archipelago.

Jamaica and Haiti

The national dress of Jamaica is the women’s quadrille dress. The quadrille dress is only worn for performances like the Quadrille dance. It is a square dance where four couples dance in a square formation. It was a popular dance among the European elite between the 18th and 19th centuries. The dress isn’t otherwise worn at occasions like weddings.

The quadrille dress is made up of an ankle-length white cotton petticoat with lace at the lower border. It is worn underneath a full skirt made of madras. The overskirt traditionally has a red and white check pattern inspired by the historical tartan motif.

On top, women wear a white blouse with short puffed sleeves with plaid ruffles. There may also be ruffles at the neckline.

Madras cotton, known as bandana in Jamaica. It was imported from India in the 18th century.   Bandana comes from the Sanskrit word ‘bandhna’ meaning to tie. It is indeed used for tying on the head and waist. Women use the bandana to tie their heads in a way that the cloth forms anywhere from one to three peaks at the back. These peaks would indicate their marital and social status.  In some cases, they also tie the cloth at their waist.

women dancing while wearing quadrille dress
Quadrille dress. The woman in the Centre is wearing the men’s version of the quadrille dress. Image Credit: Enstock

Origins and Significance of the Quadrille Dress

The origins of this dress date back to 18th century Britain, which is when women working as maids would wear similar types of clothes. The head tie, however, was added by the slaves working in the plantations. Originally to keep hair away from their faces and to protect them from the sun.

The British were known for their modest way of dressing. This dress reflects the 18th century’s value of modesty. The length of the skirt and the use of petticoats are just a few examples.

Additionally, the colours of the checked patterns are usually red and white. Sometimes streaks of blue are added which together represent Jamaica’s colonial past. After all, they were the colours on the flag of Great Britain. Dresses with other bright colours are also available, and they represent the jovial spirit of the island.

Men’s Traditional Clothing

Men’s clothing would match women’s clothing, especially for the Quadrille dance. They wear a full-sleeved white shirt, black trousers and a waistcoat made of bandana that matches the colour tartan pattern on the women’s dress. They also tie a bandana foulard to their waist. The ensemble is completed by a wide-brimmed hat. This hat is traditionally woven using the leaves of the silver palm, a plant native to the Caribbean. To complement the ladies’ dress, a piece of bandana is used for the band of the hat.

Michael Manley in kariba suit
Former Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley standing next to his wife, wearing a Kariba suit. Image Credit: Jamaicans

As it is evident, men’s traditional clothing is also influenced by the country’s colonial past. Nevertheless, a distinctly Jamaican attire for men would be the Kariba suit. Unlike the western suit, it is a two-piece suit that is also suited to the climate. It is light, airy and comfortable. It was developed in the 1970s by local fashion designers who did not like the idea of conforming to European fashion standards.

Other Influences on Jamaican clothing

rastafarian knitted tam hat
Man wearing the tam hat. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Other than colonial influences, the Rastafarian culture has also influenced Jamaican culture and, subsequently, fashion. The colours red, green and gold that have been derived from the Ethiopian flag are incorporated into everyday clothes. These colours on clothing have become synonymous with Jamaica. Perhaps the most famous kind of clothing inspired by Rastafarian culture is the knitted hat called tam. It is usually worn over dreadlocks, which is the hairstyle of choice for many followers of Rastafarianism.

Haiti

In Haiti, women also wear the quadrille dress. Only here, it is known as the karabela. In the outfit, the blouse and skirt can be separate or a whole dress. The difference between the Jamaican quadrille dress and karabela is that it has an off-shoulder top. The top and the bottom of the dress come in the same colour, which is usually blue or red, as the Haitian flag. Karabela is also made of a firmer material and has more decorative features, such as ruffles, lace and rickrack. Instead of tying their heads with a cloth to get peaks at the back, Haitian women simply wrap them in a turban. Haitian women, in fact, wrap their heads even wearing everyday clothes, especially in more rural areas. Also, unlike the Jamaican quadrille, Haitian karabela can be worn at weddings, in addition to dance performances.

The traditional dress for men is a shirt called the guayabera. This shirt, however, is worn in other countries in the Caribbean too. As such, it is discussed in detail below.

Cuba

white Guayabera shirt with four pockets
Guayabera shirt with four pockets. Image Credit: Art of Manliness

The guayabera has many names around the Caribbean. It is known as a wedding shirt, Havana shirt, cigar shirt, etc. It has recently been declared Cuba’s official formal garment.

The guayabera is a loose fitted half sleeved shirt, with buttons, a collar and small slits and the bottom on each side. Its most unique features are the two vertically running pleats that are sewn on each side of the shirt and, the fact that it has two to four pockets at the front. It is generally made of light fabrics such as linen or cotton.

According to legend, a woman had added a few extra pockets to her husband’s shirt so that he could carry some guavas on his way home.

It is worn untucked with a pair of trousers and a straw hat.

It is perhaps the only item of clothing in the Greater Antilles that is worn regularly. The shirt is so versatile that it can be worn for any type of occasion, both formal and casual.

guayabera dress for women
The guayabera dress. Image Credit: Enstock

There is also a female version of the guayabera shirt. It is called the guayabera dress. It is an ankle-length, loose-fitted, light dress that usually comes in light colours. Like the shirt, the dress also has pockets and to beautify it, there is intricate embroidery made. This garment, too, can be worn on various types of occasions.

Bata Cubana

Cuba is also largely inspired by European culture, particularly the Spanish. Their culture, along with a combination of African and French cultural influences, are reflected in a 19th-century dress called the Bata Cubana.

women wearing colourful bata cubana
Bata Cubana. Image Credit: Daily Mail UK

The Bata Cubana or the rumba dress is a colourful dress that women wear at celebrations and parties. The dress has an off-shoulder bodice and a flowy multi-layered tiered skirt that is short in the front and long at the back. It is heavily decorated with ruffles and lace. The outfit is completed by wearing a colourful headwrap. Today, the dress is reserved for dancing genres like rumba and salsa.

Men accompanying women wearing the bata cubana wear a colourful long-sleeved ruffled shirt called the rumba shirt. At the bottom, they wear tight black trousers which prove to be flexible while dancing.

The Bahamas

young people wearing colourful bahamian shirts
Colourful Bahamian shirts. Image Credit: Bahamas B2B

Traditional clothing in the Bahamas is inspired heavily by African culture. The clothes themselves are clothes worn everywhere else in the world. However, the fabric, the patterns and the colours are what makes them uniquely Bahamian. The attire comprises T-shirts, shorts, dresses, etc. The fabric highly resembles the colourful African wax print fabric found all over continental Africa. The fabric is made of cotton and they’re dyed using vibrant and warm colours like blue, yellow and orange. These radiate positivity and represent the joyful nature of the people in the Bahamas.

elaborate costume at junkanoo
Costume at junkanoo. Image Credit: Pinterest

For special occasions and cultural ceremonies, locals usually wear western formals. Costumes distinct to the Bahamas, however, can be seen during Junkanoo. Junkanoo is a street party and parade that is held during the holidays in December. Particularly during Boxing Day and New Year’s. In this carnival, people dress up in elaborate, colourful and creative costumes, masks made of crepe paper and cardboard, decorated with colourful feathers and other ornamental pieces. They dance to music, walk on stilts and parade the streets. The celebration commemorates freedom and honours the African tribal chief, John Canoe.

A quick summary

Traditional clothing found in the Greater Antilles and the Lucayan Archipelago is influenced by many factors, among which colonialism, slavery, climate and social status are the main ones. In this post, we learned that the indigenous Taino and Lucayan people wore minimal clothing to adapt to the environment and because it was most practical to their surroundings. Clothing worn then indicated age and social status or marked the practice of spiritual rituals. As the New World was discovered in the 15th century, European powers arrived, colonized and governed the lands. Their arrival introduced stitched clothing to the islands. Soon after, they also enslaved and transported people from Africa and Asia to these regions and made them work for them. From there, a unique culture developed that incorporated the elements of all cultures on the islands which can be seen in the clothing found there.

Link to last week’s post, in case you missed it: Anthropology in Fashion: Cultural Clothing on the African Islands

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