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In Search of the Perfect Guayabera

Written by Dick Holland.

There’s an essential, all-purpose shirt that every Texas man should have in his wardrobe. It’s one that can be worn casually, with shorts or jeans, or worn more formally with slacks, to weddings—or even to funerals. It’s the guayabera, and its origins lie in the Mexican state of Yucatán, or in Cuba, or even in the Philippines, depending on who is trying to sell you one. And since I was trying to buy one, I found myself headed to San Antonio, Texas headquarters for all things tropical, and to the venerable Penner’s, an Alamo City landmark.

A visit to Penner’s to select a guayabera is an easy side trip if you are in San Antonio paying your respects to the Alamo. Just take a two-block stroll from Alamo Plaza down to Commerce Street, and walk west, past the popular Schilo’s Delicatessen, established in 1917; past the immense red sandstone Bexar County Courthouse; and almost all the way to historic Market Square, the largest Mexican-style market in the United States. You’ll stop two blocks before you reach the market. Here, across the street from the 1722 Spanish Governor’s Palace, you’ll find Penner’s Men’s Store, which has evolved into one of the leading purveyors of Mexico-made guayaberas in the United States.

The store opened on West Commerce in 1916, when a Polish immigrant named Morris Penner started the business as a second-hand clothing store. Before the construction of the River Walk began in 1939, the entire neighborhood was dominated by open-air food vendors, most notably the “chili queens,” who set up makeshift tables where a tamale, a bowl of chili, and a tortilla cost as little as ten cents. Everyone, from city officials to day laborers and shopkeepers, ate lunch side by side in the plaza and the market. Penner’s soon became part of the neighborhood landscape, selling clothing to the same downtown citizens who ate lunch just outside the store. After a decade, Penner changed his business model and started selling new clothing, and he moved his store across the street, to the corner it occupies today.

In 1930, Morris Penner’s three sons, Sam, Max, and Ben, joined the business. Together, they made a name for the store by stocking clothes, shoes, and hats for men and boys in more sizes and styles than other dry goods merchants. And while the store’s selection has always included a wide range of styles, from very casual to very dressy, Penner’s has lately become synonymous with a single garment that can be both—the guayabera.

Penner’s guayaberas adhere to a classic pattern and vary in quality and price according to the fabric. Each side of the shirt front features two rows of very small pleats that run from the yoke on top to the hem on the bottom. Each front side also features four decorative buttons, one on the yoke, one on the hem, and one each on the upper and lower pockets. The back of the shirt has three double rows of pleats anchored by decorative buttons on the yoke and the bottom hem. Because it is designed for a hot climate, the classic guayabera requires only a half sleeve, although long sleeve shirts are available. One story about the guayabera’s origin claims that the loose-fitting, four-pocket design was devised by the wives of Cuban farmers so that each man could carry more guavas home from the field during harvest. The bottom hem has a three-inch opening on both sides, adding to the shirt’s loose comfort.

These days, Sam Penner’s son Mark runs the store, and he showed me some shirts. In the most diplomatic way possible, he walked me upstairs where the store stocks clothing for what I will call the full-grown man. For decades, Penner’s sold tropical shirts made in China. But in the early 1990s, the family made an important change, one that has put them in the forefront of the guayabera business: They contracted with shirt makers in the Yucatán city of Mérida, Mexico, to create shirts designed to custom specifications. Penner’s now collaborates with three manufacturers in Mexico, furnishing fabric and buttons so the guayaberas come to Texas in distinctive sizes and colors. The brightly colored and lavishly embroidered Mexican shirts call attention to themselves (and to the wearer), but customers often choose the more sophisticated Pima cotton and Irish-linen shirts for weddings and formal occasions. For those, Penner’s works with a company in Panama City, Panama.

Mark Penner’s son Matt guides Penner’s online business, where the majority of today’s guayaberas find their owners. In fact, guayabera sales took off after Matt started the Web site in 2001. Customers hail from around the world: from Europe to New York, from New England to Alaska, and from South America to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Many businesses, including restaurants requiring staff wardrobes, place large orders. The store is closed on Sunday, and on a typical Monday morning, the Penners find more than 100 orders waiting online.

Worried about fit? Don’t be. “I have eight tailors here working full-time,” says Mark Penner. “If you buy a suit or a shirt before 11 in the morning, we can have it altered for you before closing time.”

So I expressed enhanced appreciation for the guayabera—and for the Penner’s tradition—by ordering some shirts. Two of my new guayaberas needed alteration, and one was back-ordered. As I expected, they soon arrived back home in Austin, exactly when Penner said they would, crisp and meticulously folded. All three are Irish linen, perfectly plain and understated, two of them flat white, and one the color of vanilla ice cream. The capacious cut and hem detail make them natural to wear with trousers or shorts. I am convinced they flatter my figure. Whenever I wear them now, I feel like the coolest guy in the room, but soon I think I’ll be needing a flashier one to wear to the beach.

Penner’s Men’s Store is at 311 W. Commerce St., in San Antonio. Closed Sun. Call 210/226-2487; www.pennersinc.com.

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