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How has the arrival of WiFi affected Fashion on the secluded Cuban Island?

Having spent my high school years in Havana, Cuba among many other international friends, it’s impossible to overlook the everlasting effect local fashion had on us. There was no real connection to the outside world, yet fashion was always a colorful topic in Cuba. I often remember the vivid, punchy colors and short and often way too tight fits of the fashion on the island. When thinking of these images I realize I carry these memories with love and moreover nostalgia.

Friends at a gathering dressed in different colors and patterns in Cuba
Photo by Maria Haselhuber

Still, given the recent arrival of (limited) WiFi on the island, I was keen to understand how this had changed the landscape of fashion among its local and international residents from I had known it growing up. Having spoken to different friends, whom I shared my time with there, I was able to gather insight and thoughts regarding the shifting Fashion scene in Cuba as well as it’s limit.

When outlets say WiFi has arrived on the island, one may let one’s mind run wild and think that it is everywhere. It is not. And it is certainly not as accessible as it sounds. It is very limited and very expensive. This strongly reminds me of the Cuba I knew growing up: If you want something from the “outside world” you’ll have to pay for it.. but it probably won’t work too well.

Bright and baby blue ETECSA Telecommunications house in Cuba located in Viñales with different cubans sitting outside using the WiFi
via @twoscotsabroad Blog

In order to obtain the WiFi access one must purchase a Nauta card in one of the ETECSA boutiques. Normally there is a long queue. A friend tells me that when the WiFi cards were new the queues were impossibly long. My advice: expect a queue. Cuba is relaxed and may I say.. slow paced.

The ETECSA Nauta Internet card is purchased through one of the stores and enables you to connect to the internet for 1$ an hour. Alternatively you can buy 5 hours, disconnecting when you need to. Nevertheless, it often does not work. So even though some may be able to access the internet easier, depending on finances, it is not the same thing as outside of the island. We constantly refresh our feeds, given new content every few seconds. In Cuba, one has to think about how one will use the internet and what content to access. On top of that the loading time will be extremely slow.

A screenshot of the Nauta connection service with the account number, time consumed and time remaining
Nauta WiFi connection site window

From my friend’s reports even when you are in one of the designated WiFi areas, often the connection will be slow or even nonexistent. “At times it is so frustrating that it is not worthwhile”. This shows not only the type of WiFi one receives in Cuba, but also its limits regarding content and media.

Putting these hurdles and difficulties aside, the arrival of purchasable WiFi across the island has brought change: It has enabled many to discover new phone applications such as Instagram and Pinterest, which are filled with fashionable people from all around the world. A type of exposure and intercommunication across the ocean not seen much before on the island. With curateable news feeds one injects one’s interests and the algorithm bursts out content that may be of your liking. But in Cuba it is more than that: You are exposed to content that you would have not been otherwise. You are able to have insight into the style of the other countries citizens, but also are many fashion brands now showcasing their collections via social media. One can now have a taste of not only the fashion that one might also see on tourists coming to the island, but also the creations of the High Fashion Houses as they are released. Most importantly: Cuban’s share. Therefore even those that can’t access the internet or certain content directly, rest assured that a friend or neighbor has downloaded things that they will share with you. Including the newest fashionable insights.

This allows not only locals to draw inspiration from fashion creations each season, but also for the fashion designers on the island to be inspired by the newest fashion trends of brands that might have been possible to be known but not seen in Cuba. “We have completely different insight now! We get to see what the celebrities dress like and what the newest in is. It’s interesting” Carolina, my friend who still lives partly in Cuba, tells me.

“Fashion on the island has always been in tune with the weather: Tank top, Shorts and some Flip Flops, most likely Havanitas. Now that the horizon has expanded, there is certainly influence in the way people are dressing.” she continues.

When I lived in Cuba we of course were exposed to the “outside world” including the fashion, yet at a very limited and often extremely delayed timing. Certain Applications, Movies and trends would arrive 1 or even 2 years after it has been popular on the European or American continent, yet now it is much more readily accessible. And if it is not, then at least the delay has been minimized.

When I asked Karl, a Nigerian friend who lived in Cuba while I was there and is now based in England, about what he thinks of how the fashion has changed since we lived there he responded with “I feel like when we were younger we just copied what the Cubans were wearing and also we had a lot of friends that were locals and we mixed that with our own clothes from back home. Now people mix more. Even my Cuban friends are much more influenced by European fashion: I see much more people wearing Jeans despite the weather but also the Cargo pants and the more European looking dresses” . I couldn’t agree more. Among our peers, I also see that many of my friends are now mixing more, however I would also say that the fashion scene has stayed true to its Cuban roots.

Cuban lady with pungent blue hair wrap and a bright red flower attached to it, smokes a cigar while sittingon a brown wooden chair against a bright yellow backdrop, fanning herself with a mellow yellow hand fan
via @manvsglobe Instagram

When looking at local designers and fashion enthusiasts however, I do believe the arrival of WiFi has changed many things for them. They are able to gather up to date insights into trends and the newest fabrics, then producing these pieces locally. Many of them might receive funding from outside of the island, meaning they would potentially be able to source fabrics from other countries with the knowledge of current trends. Noticing, that of course in a country as hot as Cuba, one would work extensively with linen and cotton, which can often be difficult to source on the island itself. In an Interview with ID magazine Rolando Rius states “We cannot compare ourselves with designers from outside, firstly the climate here and then the economy almost forces us only onto one path: the one of comfort”. This statement underlines strongly the fact that despite all the changes that have happened, their limitations almost make it seem as if the change was more of a facet than a reality.

The ability to have insight into the fashion from other countries has enabled the locals to expand their creativity, yet sadly it meets its limits when it comes to sourcing these items: be it manufactured clothes or raw fabric material.

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