Cover A fashion show in San Francisco by a well known Philippine fashion designer, Jose "Pitoy" Moreno (Photo: Ramon 2002/Flickr)

It is only fitting that the elegant and modest Filipina back in the day wore a beautiful dress like the Maria Clara gown, known as the Filipiniana. In this article, Tatler delves deeper into its history

The Maria Clara gown, terno, or Filipiniana attire played a big role in the county's culture. In many history books and museum archives, it can be seen that the dress gave many Filipino women a sense of identity that the ravages of time can never corrupt. 

The Filipiniana is a traditional dress that can be identified by its puffy butterfly sleeves, plain blouse (baro or camisa), long skirt (saya), and a pañuelo (a square of cloth used as a head covering or worn as a scarf around the neck) worn over the shoulders. 

For starters, a baro or camisa is a collarless blouse made of flimsy and translucent fabrics; saya, on the other hand, is a long skirt that begins from the waist reaching the floor and is typically comprised of double sheets called dos paños (two cloths); meanwhile, the pañuelo is a cloth used to cover the nape and upper body to show modesty.

Read more: Filipiniana: 7 Stunning Dresses Worn By Celebrities—Jess Wilson, Pia Wurtzbach, And More

Where did it come from?

The Filipino's fascination with terno stemmed from the influence of the Spanish colonial period; an era that highlighted Christian ethics which demanded women be modest at all times. The baro, for example, is a design that was heavily inspired by the costume of the Blessed Virgin's statues.

Since the baro was made of fine materials, women were also subjected to wear the pañuelo to serve as a veil or cover their breasts. When the Spaniards took rule of the country, their mission was to spread Christianity; hence transforming women's clothing into something more conservative. Back then, showing certain parts of the body like one's ankle, foot, back, or leg was a great taboo.

The Filipiniana costume gradually spread across the Philippines before the end of the 17th century. The clothing restrictions imposed by the Spaniards brought about the use of starched pina and finer forms of sinamay and jusi (silk).


The sought-after terno had seen changes in the 17th century. During this era, Filipino-Spanish mestizas (Filipinos with at least some Chinese ancestry descended from the Spanish colonial era) incorporated dresses similar to the European ladies. This consists of a short skirt, blouse, a hat with the addition of an apron or tapis, and a pañuelo. This style, however, did not become popular and was only short-lived.

The pañuelo and saya for women became dominant during the early 18th century. The sarong or tapis worn on top of the new saya (a shorter but wider) declared native pride. The sleeves of the camisa also became longer and narrower and were heavily gathered and pleated in place where they were joined by the body of the camisa

Meanwhile, the new pañuelo was very small and almost served as a loose collar. Many historians believed that this was a "native touch" as it deviates from the big and fancy neck ruffles used by European nobles.

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During the early 1900s, a Filipiniana version called Serpentina took over Philippine fashion. This type of dress has a skirt that was narrowed at the top but was generously wide at the bottom. It was also lined with a stiff cloth composed of abaca fibre. Many historians can easily identify this style as its bottom part was separate from the top. 

The next trend was the Capa de Napoleon; this version of the terno was "innovative" and used the Iloilo rengue cloth woven from a mixture of both pina and jusi fibres. This marked the birth of the sinamay cloth, a material woven from the stalks of the abaca tree. Sometime in 1913, women wore wide sash or paja around their waists. The paja was either black or silk cloth or any other colour that matches and completes the dress.

When the Americans colonised the country, a lot of changes were applied to traditional Filipiniana. The former introduced sewing machines that opened endless possibilities for new stitches and styles. 

When the 1930s came, young adult women and children gradually abandoned the typical Traje de Mestiza and replaced it with floral printed dresses matched with mid-calf length shirts. 

During the dawn of the Second World War II in the 1940s, there was a shortage in tailoring shops, clothing boutiques, and dressmaking factories as the Philippines was under the wrath of the Japanese empire; this led to the gradual disappearance of old terno dresses; women wore simpler, monochromatic dresses.

In the 1960s, the country saw various and modern styles of terno. The styles that emerged from British pop culture heavily influenced the popular Mary Quant dress which was composed of a miniskirt or mini dress. Women styled their hair bigger and higher with the use of hairspray.

More from Tatler: Weaving the Threads of Filipino Heritage

Cultural Importance

In the modern age, Filipinianas are still seen in themed events; the evolution of fashion paved way for artistic and innovative designers who want to incorporate their respective styles in every piece they sew. Today, Filipinianas come in bright and vibrant colours, varying patterns, cuts, and whatnot.

While we do not see ternos as often, one thing remains true: it's beauty and heritage will surely live on for years and generations to come.