By SOL VANZI
Images from Patis Tesoro Boutique
One of the most awaited events annually is the convening of Congress to hear the president of the Republic of the Philippines deliver the State of the Nation address, which is covered extensively and live by all radio and television networks. Days before the occasion, newspapers and magazine articles and pictorials give sneak previews of what the members of the First Family, legislators, and their partners intend to wear.
On the big day itself, no one is disappointed; Congress becomes a showroom of the most colorful assemblage of Filipino attire representing cultural groups from Aparri to Tawi-Tawi. Nobody raises an eyebrow when an official from the Cordilleras shows up wearing a G-string, braving the arctic blast of the Batasan air conditioners as he mingles with groups from Mindanao decked in shiny silks, pearls, and sequins. It’s a proud moment for showcasing the nation’s unity in the face of cultural and religious diversity.
It was not always so.
Not too long ago, invitations to social and political events that indicated Filipiniana for the dress code gave women only two choices: A baro’t saya for formal gatherings or a patadyong for a barrio fiesta-themed party. Men were restricted to barong Tagalog and nothing else.
All other regional attires were considered tribal costumes reserved only for cultural tableaus, native dance presentations, and quasi-religious events like the Flores de Mayo and Santacruzan.
The Flores de Mayo started as strictly a gathering of young girls and unmarried women offering flowers to the Virgin Mary’s image in church after walking around the town. The Santacruzan is an elaborate tableau of biblical and historical characters and events culminating in the discovery of Christ’s Holy Cross by Roman Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great.
Today’s versions of the two processions bear little resemblance to the ones held 50 years ago when modesty was the rule in matters concerning Filipina costumes, the most famous of which is what we now call the terno, the apparel of choice to events that specify Filipiniana attire in their formal invitations.
I watched my grandmother make all her clothes, even the formal ones. Her generation, born at the turn of the century, daily wore ankle-length loose skirts held together by cotton drawstrings. Her blouses were what were called kimono—round-necked, collarless, and sleeveless. Under everything was a white cotton kamison with embroidered neck trim and hem. Over one shoulder was an alampay, a square shawl folded into a rectangle when not in use as a shield against the sun and cold evening breezes.
For really special occasions like standing as a wedding sponsor, she wore a baro’t saya which took several weeks to make. The baro (blouse) was a kimono-fashioned from starched sheer kanyamaso woven from pineapple fiber. The saya (skirt) used a soft cloth, either silk of light cotton, with colorful prints or patterns. More kanyamaso was used to make what would become the iconic butterfly sleeves (manggas), which were to be pleated and pinned on the bodice at the last minute.
After the pair of manggas were cut and their edges sewn, the skirt’s print/pattern was drawn on Manila paper, which was pinned to the unassembled manggas and baro as guide for embroidering the design. Once decorated, baro and manggas were rolled up into a tube, ready for assembly on the big day. Patis Tesoro has preserved this art, and continues to make baro’t saya using traditional materials.
THE CONVENIENT TERNO
Much credit is given to National Artist Ramon Valera for joining the baro’t saya at the waist, fitting the bodice and cinching the waistline. Eliminating the stiff panuelo and installing a zipper to replace hooks and pins made the terno easier to wear and store.
The biggest boost to the popularity of the terno was the emergence of Imelda Marcos in the 1960s. Young and beautiful, the country’s First Lady had the height and the figure to best show off the country’s most popular formal dress.
Imelda wore the terno to almost all her official engagements around the world, making the butterfly sleeves highly recognized everywhere. Soon every Filipina wanted one.
CULTURAL MINORITIES EMERGE
The government’s unprecedented focus on cultural minorities and the influence of hippies made Filipinos feel liberated enough to wear tribal beads, use mountain backpacks, experiment with handwoven textiles like ikat.
In Davao City, the Aldevinco Shopping Center became a must-visit destination for fashionistas looking for authentic jewelry, malongs, home décor, and clothing made by Maranaws, Tirurays, Tbolis, Bagobos, and Manobos.
These ethnic souvenirs were soon featured in beautifully written and excellently photographed articles and documentaries, resulting in more sales of tribal articles outside Manila. By the 1970s, boutiques and fashion shows in the metropolis were showcasing tribal fashion, emboldening socialites and fashion models to wear them to events that required Filipiniana attire.
DIVERSE BUT UNITED
It is heartwarming to watch a gathering of Filipinos clothed in a kaleidoscope of fabrics fashioned from threads spun from native plants, adorned with beads, pearls, and glitter.
Each individual attire represents a distinct tribe or region with its own language, food, and traditions, but all of them calling themselves Filipino.