Cover "Mestizos Sangley y Chino" Tipos del País, 19th century watercolour by Justiniano Asuncion (1841) from the book "Las Indias Orientales Españolas" | Image: Wikimedia Commons

We begin a series on highlighting our country’s rich heritage and what is inherently Filipino. This month we start off with our traditional men’s attire, the barong tagalog.

Worn up to this day on very important celebrations and formal gatherings, the barong tagalog’s ever-present magnificence that is inherently Filipino has stood the test of time. Barong tagalog, root word baro pertaining to “upper garment”, literally means “Tagalog outfit”. It was coined during the early Spanish colonial period to distinguish it as a native attire of Filipinos in contrast to the European-styled three-piece suits.

Evolution in fashion throughout the centuries brought upon various modifications of the barong tagalog, and even grew in popularity nowadays on women as an alternative to the elaborate four-piece traje de mestiza known as Maria Clara. Typically, it is made of sheer lightweight woven fabric made of either piña or jusi, the former considered more precious.

Piña could be an heirloom garment when properly maintained, for its tedious process and delicateness. The Aklanons of western Panay are acknowledged to be the pioneers in piña weaving. The tedious process begins with the stripping of the epidermis of the leaves of the red Visayan pineapple (ananas comosus), using a shard of Chinese porcelain. The lustrous coarse fibre called bastos is extracted by hand and reserved for use in making strings or twine. The next layer is the liniwan, which is obtained using a coconut shell. Ivory white in colour, this fibre is the finest. It undergoes degumming, which involves repeated rinsing, beating and air-drying—each step undertaken with great care. When completely dried, each strand is knotted to produce long continuous threads. The process of weaving the warp and weft takes weeks to complete, yielding just enough fabric for one barong tagalog. Some fibres are naturally dyed; most fabrics are hand embroidered. This tedious and time-consuming process of production renders the piña a most precious material.

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Tatler Asia

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There seems to be a dearth in written documents and illustrations on the evolution of the barong tagalog.

Though determined to have been in use as early as pre-colonial Philippines as the baro or canga (collarless rough-cotton doublet), how it transformed in look by the 19th century is hazy. Earliest illustrations in the 1820s showed what is called the barong mahaba, an early variation that is longer, reaching down slightly above the knees, striped with vibrant colours and remarkably fine and sheer in texture. Eventually the barong tagalog became monochromatic and shorter in length, paving the way for baro cerrada that has a closed-neck collar and made from opaque material.

It is safe to assume that only members of the upper class during the early Spanish colonial period had the means to commission couturiers and tailors for barong tagalog that they could wear daily and in formal functions. The commoners such as farmers, stonemasons and vendors wore camison or camiseta for everyday wear. But eventually the popularity of the pristine piña barong tagalog waned: the ilustrados (educated Filipinos) who have returned from abroad sported Western-style suits, lesser quality barongs made from opaque materials like abaca, jusi, and sinamay have been readily available, and americana suits and tuxedos were introduced at the dawn of the 20th century. Men started wearing it only at special Sunday Masses, tertullas (afternoon tea usually with poetry or music) and fiestas (town feast days).

Bringing the barong tagalog to national prominence may be credited to the late President Manuel L Quezon and his successors, especially Ramon Magsaysay who was the first to wear it on his inauguration. Men were inspired to dust off their old barong tagalogs and proudly wear it again more often in affairs that require an elegant attire. In 1975, the barong tagalog was officially recognised as a national attire via Proclamation No 1374. Hence, further variations were made to produce easier-to-wear barong for corporate employees.

  • Imagesfrom the book "The Art of Philippine Embellishment" by Patis Tesoro
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