Visual Arts

Havana is an anomaly, an enigma, a conundrum

Shortlist Cuba-4939(L)

©Martin Tompkins

The place is so confusing, in fact, Cubans say even they can’t figure it out. Comedians quip that Cuba is also an onion: The more layers you peel back, the harder you cry. Complex, confusing, frustrating, and fascinating – the island has long been all this, but the rhythm and vibe are becoming even more intense as Cuba undergoes profound economic changes. As you might imagine, the shifting sands are especially noticeable in Havana, the financial, cultural, and political capital of the country. So swift and novel are these changes, impressions from even a handful of years ago are already dated. This is what makes a book like this so valuable: Shot at the tail end of 2013 and written over several months thereafter, it opens the doors to a culture in (r)evolution.

The panoply of influences swirling about the island has also forged standards of beauty and fashions particular to its melting pot status. For example, the ideal Cuban woman is pear-shaped, like a Spanish guitar, full-bodied, buxom, and with carnita (a little bit of meat) on her bones – diametrically opposed to the wispy waifs glorified by the global movie and modeling industry. Traditional traits including long, dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes are held in high esteem here, as evidenced by the widely reproduced image of the ‘Gitana Tropical’ (Tropical Gypsy), painted by Victor Manuel in 1929. In Havana, it’s not uncommon for women and girls to sport long tresses to their waist. Though bottle blonds (and to a lesser extent, colored contact lenses) are becoming more popular here, it’s telling that women dyeing their hair jet black and refusing to cut it into adulthood are customs still followed with gusto.

The Havana you’ll see in these pages are a snapshot of a culture in the midst of a sea change: Things are evolving so fast in Cuba, it’s doubtful things will look nearly the same in two years time. Already this alteration is underway: Whereas a couple of years ago you’d be lucky to find a Rápido (Cuba’s fast-food chain) open after 11 p.m., today there are innumerable cafeterias, clubs, lounges, and high-end restaurants catering to the late-night crowd. Sushi, Russian, and Swedish dining, designer accessory stores, and even pet-clothing boutiques are among Havana’s offerings, providing a heretofore unimagined array of choice to the city’s inhabitants. Only time will tell how long these new businesses will survive – we’ve already watched as many a promising store or restaurant opened and closed – but one thing is certain: Cubans will forever do whatever is within their power to dress with thought and panache.

By Connor Gorry

This extract originally appeared in Havana Street Style by Connor Gorry, Gabriel Solomons and Martin Tompkins, and is part of Intellect’s Street Style book series.

For more information on the book, visit Intellect’s website
To purchase as an ebook, visit

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