The Origin and Evolution of Filipino-Inspired Fashion

December 19, 2016 12:08 pm by Karla Ramos

Text by Betty V. Lalana | Photos Courtesy of the Ortigas Foundation Library

The origins of distinctly Filipino fashion can be traced back to the humble baro’t saya, which was simply a skirt and blouse, with an additional short wraparound – the tapis, and topped off with a pañuelo (kerchief). The tapis is similar to other Southeast Asian native costumes which also have this additional layer, while the pañuelo, some say, was imposed by the colonial Spanish due to strict Christian practices that required the bosom to be modestly covered. It was later in the 19th century that the baro’t saya evolved into the more elegant “traje de mestiza”, with fuller layers and the use of better fabrics for the upper class of society and its accompanying social events. And this early on, it became the icon for special occasions.trends-filipino-inspired-fashion

The transparent sleeves and panuelo sewn together and worn over a basic top for a family portrait taken at a studio

This basic ensemble adapted to the European trends belatedly reaching the Philippines, by altering the style of sleeves, the use of patterned skirts, and changing the styles and fabrics of the pañuelos, an accessory that was for a time integrated permanently into Filipino outfits. After World War II, thepañuelo was dropped, but some current couturiers integrate it into the collar style or transform it into a modern-day shawl.

The term terno is a short cut for ternos bordados, which was used to indicate the matching embroideries in both the camisa (top) and pañuelo, or the top and skirt of an ensemble. Some consider the Maria Clara (so-called from a fictional character in Jose Rizal’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’) as another version of the terno, traditionally with bell sleeves rather than the distinctive butterfly sleeves.

The patadyong and balintawak were usually worn in rural areas and while perhaps some features may have been adapted to the terno, they didn’t evolve into what is considered “fashion”. They remain as “Filipino costumes” worn  during Filipiniana events, folk dances, and local fiestas.

In following the European trends, the tapis eventually lost its place in the ensemble, although even in present times, some couturiers will place a sash or drape to represent it. It was also in following the foreign trends that some ternos were designed as a one-piece gown rather than a top and bottom. Fashionable innovations were created by draping, shirring, folding, pleating, or layering the skirt.

For men, it is noted that even during pre-colonial times, the natives of Luzon wore long shirts of light materials, similar to their Southeast Asian counterparts, as was the norm for countries with high temperature and humidity levels. It was simply called “baro” and was the predecessor of the “barong tagalog”, commonly referred to as just the “barong”. Like clothes of any country, it was the material and style that determined one’s social status with, the finer cloths and embroideries and more elaborate styles worn by the upper class and the simple cotton fabrics and style worn by the general populace. As with ladies’ wear, the barong has undergone many evolutions with a wealth of fabrics and styles to match different occasions, and has become the formal wear for men.

When speaking of “Filipino fashion” in its truest sense, one must equate the term with the equally distinctive Filipino fabrics and embroidery. For no matter the adapted styles, the fabrics used were those woven for our tropical weather – the lighter jusi, piña, sinamay, abaca, and banana fibers.

From the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, a heightened sense of style developed, which brought variations like the use of numerous panels called “siete cuchillos”, trains called “saya de cola” ,or fitting skirts that flared below the knee called “serpentinas”. The Manila Carnival, an annual event that attracted candidates from the elite, was the perfect venue to showcase these different styles.

During the early 20th century, the Americans embraced the local fabrics as the best suited for tropics, fell in love with intricate embroideries, and actively promoted them. It was also during this era that the silhouettes became slimmer, accentuating the female figure.

Traditionally, both ladies’ and men’s wear were loosely fitting for comfort in high temperatures and for freer movement. Understandably, fashion “waned” during and after World War II, but in the decades that followed, there came a resurgence of fashion and many more innovations were adapted to the basic terno.

What remains as a constant source of pride is the fact that the Philippine terno and barong were elevated to mean elegance and class. Today, these are worn in the most formal and grandest of occasions. Talented Filipino couturiers and designers have opened the gates of innovation to come up with outstanding and impressive versions and designs. There seems to be no end to the combination of fabrics and styles to produce yet another lovely version of these icons of Philippine fashion.

This is most evident in international conferences and events where the terno and barong have become the impressive and admired showcases of the variety of Filipino textiles, craftsmanship, innovation, and creativity in the world of fashion and design – the humble baro’t saya and barong turned world class.