I was only half-heartedly looking for fashion in Cuba — it helped justify my presence there awhile back — and didn't really expect to find it. Still, somehow fashion — on "runways," even in a magazine — was everywhere.
On the first night in Havana, the first and last state-owned, tourist-oriented restaurant we would try featured a fashion show. The models didn't look so different from anywhere else — maybe healthier. They wore white crocheted get-ups, made by the guild of textile workers. They were students at a state-run modeling school.
There was the tap on the shoulder from the reedy, smiling girls, who asked us if we liked fashion and invited us to their show at the University of Havana in Vedado. We saw students with iPods and digital cameras — another, Miami-aided universe from the well-chronicled poverty in other quarters — and instead of "fashion," everyone wore their daily clothes, particularly international students. A discussion followed on the dialectics of self-presentation. Its moderator, a tiny girl of twenty, told us afterwards that Obama was a demagogue. We had just come from his inauguration.
La Maison is a lonely site of high-end consumption inside of Cuba. In a mansion in Miramar — a neighborhood so well-preserved it blew away everything we thought Cuba was — there were red velvet armchairs and imported Givenchy perfumes, for apparatchiks who couldn't make the haul elsewhere, it seemed. They, too, had fashion shows regularly.
My traveling companion had spent her childhood in Communist Russia. It was her idea to bring the women's magazines — Lucky, Glamour, Shape — because that was what they wanted. We decided to give them to women in a dollmaking workshop we stumbled on in Baracoa, a village on Cuba's eastern tip, because they decorated their walls with a collage of such images.
Their male overseer scowled as they turned the pages eagerly, but managed a polite smile for us. We hoped we hadn't gotten them in trouble.
This is a clothing store in Santiago de Cuba.
It was mostly empty inside, like almost every store we saw in Cuba.
This is Gisleda, who teaches modeling at the Aragne modeling school. She was the one who led me to the women's magazines of the Revolution.
I came looking for Estella, who wrote about fashion for Mujeres (woman) and Muchacha, its younger sister. (The cover lines above include "How much does a kiss cost?" and "When I say no, is it yes?") It only took only a few minutes of wheedling and waiting to get an audience with the editor in chief herself.
Gesturing at the table next to her, Isabel Moya Richard told me not to mind the group of young men — it was just the study group on Critical Approaches to Masculinity. One of them winked at me.
What did I want to know, she said kindly. I asked her why it seemed that everywhere I went in this closed, Communist society, all anyone wanted to do was parade down a runway. It was the incompleteness of the revolution, she said. It meant they all still had work to do, but it would be done.
She told me it was a struggle to put out a magazine without advertisements, that wasn't selling anything. That she had to figure out a way to consider fashion as self-expression and not as an engine of consumption, but this was not an easy task. That was one of the reasons they used so many illustrations (that, I imagine, and because of limited funds).
Here is an example of an accessories report — bags made by a local artisan.
We had spent much of those ten days in Cuba talking to dissident bloggers, who were pushing back against the state-controlled media, trying to create a network of independent voices to try to tell their stories to the world. The editor in chief was responsible for shaping how the dominant narrative would be imparted to women, and like the general-audience version, it was all about the triumph of the Revolution, which happened to include the muffling of all other voices. As a reporter covering magazines, working at a magazine company, I found it hard to imagine a women's magazine that wasn't selling lipstick or this fall's it bag.
Well, okay, there was some lipstick. Here, makeup tips.
And here, a rare color fashion page.
But it was easier to imagine this different type of women's magazine when you realized that they were selling their own product — the Revolution.