Originally authored on January 13, 2019
The fashion history of the Barong Tagalog as the Philippine national wear for men had evolved for more than four centuries. Although it retained its essential look since it was first worn, various factors have influenced its style and purpose.
Long before the arrival of the Spaniards, ancient Filipinos possessed a distinct culture that distinguished them from other races. The Tagalogs of Luzon already wore a garment that was a forerunner of Barong Tagalog or Baro. In the historical account of Ma-I (pre-colonial name for the Philippines), the earliest known fact on the Baro was that Filipinos wore a sleeve-doublet of rough cotton cloth called kanga which reached slightly below the waist, was collarless, and had an opening in front. The doublet specified the badge of courage and social status of men. Red was for the chiefs and the bravest while black and white were for the ordinary citizens. The loins were covered with bahaque or G-String.
However, the attire of Tagalog men presumably those of the upper crust was made of fine linen or Indian muslin which barely reached the waist. It was a short, loose jacket called chamarreta without a collar and fitted with short sleeves.
On the other hand, men from the Visayan islands wore a moorish style robe (marlota) or jacket (baquero) made without a collar reaching down to the feet and embroidered in full colors.
IN THE 17TH CENTURY
When the Spaniards came and started its colonization, the fashion changed drastically as their culture influenced the succeeding centuries of Philippine history.
The Ilustrados brought in their dressy shirts with a high Elizabethan collar trimmed with lace and adorned with gem or a big button. This kind of attire required the use of slippers if not shoes. It was extended just above the knees and worn with a thin sash across the waist.
19th CENTURY BARO
The Elizabethan collar was replaced by a short one without lace and the length of Baro was shortened. The trousers became tight and adorned with big military stripes which were then in vogue. During this period, the handkerchief of colored silk inspired by the European cravat was introduced to go with the attire.
The Baro acquired the romantic look in 1859. Due to the continuing influence of the Western culture and exposure from European fashion scene, a more intricate version was introduced. The embroidery was scattered all over the body of the Barong. It was buttoned on the chest with smaller collars and bold curls.
The ordinary folks wore loose shirts with coarse quimara cloth in blue and white striped with matching trousers. A kerchief was flung over shoulder or putong on the head for added flair.
By the time Filipino nationalist had won their fight for independence, more elaborate designs with ruffled collars and cuffs re-appeared in the 1920. Assorted designs in stripes, tiny checks, and flower patterns were embroidered on rainbow colored materials.
Quite similar to the design of European shirt dress, an authentic design called pechera from the Spanish word pecho meaning chest, was introduced. Rengue or coarse pina cloth and abaca fiber sported a hand embroidered design on the half-open chest with plain collar and pleated backs.
Favored by the well-heeled Filipinos, significantly, this was the time when the Barong Tagalog was defined as an independent costume.
THE DAWNING OF TAAL EMBROIDERY
Since the turn of the century, the town of Taal had a long tradition of hand embroidery. It’s intricate, well-embossed stitches made it an increasingly refined art of society. Taal boasts of a well-crafted callado as one of the finest in the world.
The narrative of bordado started in 1914 when Arsenia Barrion was sent as a pensionado to the School of Household Industries in America to learn fine embroidery by hand and machine. Arsenia solely became synonymous with fine and quality embroidery. Upon her return to the Philippines, she taught her neighbors what she learned abroad. Her life suddenly changed its course when she met an American agent of an American embroidery corporation. When this agent learned about Arsenia’s skill, he commissioned her and some other ladies to embroider materials for his company, later known as Judy Philippines, Inc.
Arsenia proved her proficiency and always one to accomplish her job on time. She earned good profit from this new responsibility and soon established casa or patahian distributing thousands of baby dresses, nightgowns, naguas, kamison, handkerchiefs, guantes on top of Barong Tagalog which became Taal’s next lucrative livelihood.
Other Taalenos followed suit and soon resulted for more casas to be sprouted in town. Arsenia was celebrated for her pioneering and embroidery prowess that changed the course of the industry and uplifted the economy of Taal. She was accorded the Panday Pira Award for “Pioneering in Embroidery for Export”.
As the industry lost its steam in the early ’90s, Lumban learned from the challenges encountered by Taal. Though it was just a furlough, infinite hope still resides until Taal is back on the map of Barong embroidery once more.
THE COMMONWEALTH BARONG TAGALOG
Under the authority of President Manuel L. Quezon, the Tydings-McDuffie motif was adopted. It featured the Philippine Commonwealth flag alongside with the American flag in crisscrossed fashion all over the fabric.
THE POST-WAR BARONG
As the Americans control grew tighter, many Filipinos steeped in colonial mentality dressed in American outfit. The Commonwealth and Republic Presidents from Manuel L. Quezon to Manuel Roxas to Elpidio Quirino flaunted their white sharkskin suits, coats with vests, and tuxedos at official functions. No one was motivated to push the Barong to its national recognition.
It took the “man of the masses”, President Ramon Magsaysay to raise the bar when he decided to wear Barong during his inauguration. The Barong earned its first nationalistic medal. Since then it began to be worn at formal occasions, thus, stood side-by-side with national attires of other countries.
Geometric designs came into the picture, a respite from the traditional flower design.
Under the term of President Diosdado Macapagal, a certain design was named after him and Pelaez. Bridegrooms donned long-sleeved pechera, the design which remain constant to date.
President Ferdinand E. Marcos issued a decree proclaiming Barong Tagalog Week (June 5-11) and designated it a “national attire”. The objective was meant to focus nationwide attention on the Filipino national dress to wider use and enhance its export potential.
Alongside this trend, Polo Barong became fashionable. A short-sleeve variety (made of cotton, ramie, chiffonille and “gusot mayaman”) became the all-around wear of Filipinos.
In an age of identity confusion and foreign culture saturation, the Barong Tagalog stands proud as something uniquely Filipino. It defines Filipino identity and learning about once roots. With distinctive local fibers and artisan detailing, the Barong is still reminiscent of Filipino forefathers before globalization.
With the little change since President Marcos declared it a national attire, Filipinos continue to wear the Barong with elan and distinguishing acceptance world-wide.
* – credits to the owner/s for the pictures