Traje de Mestiza to the Terno (1890s-1960s): An Evolution

For each decade, detailed outlines of how the national dress was evolving from the folds of the “panuelo” to the volume of the “saya”, even the women’s current hairstyle have been thoroughly researched to come up with a thesis of how the terno progressed.

During a nationwide terno design competition in 2003, Gino Gonzales fresh from New York, a scenographer, exhibition and costume designer was invited as a curator of the exhibit designs.

Dismayed at the turnout of the young designers’ competition, Gino couldn’t fathom how the terno was stylized, the need to reinvent the butterfly sleeves imposed on a western dress was unnecessary, without regard to its cultural background. When the terno ceased to be worn around the end of the Marcos period, it created a gap and vacuum in history where all the young people growing up in that period didn’t have the idea what the terno is.

Running against time, Gino thought of preserving the photographic sources of Philippine costumes in postcards which were fast deteriorating and disappearing. He only wanted to make a small picture book that was easy to carry around. In the process, he sought the help of Sandy Higgins for photos of the 1940s and 1950s for the planned book , while Mark Higgins, the son of postwar designer Salvacion Lim Higgins and a co-director of the fashion school SLIM’s, on impulse offered to partner in a 200-page magazine-size tome.

They presented the picture book to Ben Chan, chair of Suyen Corporation who loved what he saw and asked them to add another 100 pages resulting in a coffee-table book “Fashionable Filipinas” complete with a slipcase. Bench was on top of their list because it has connection with pop culture. It also has a roster of endorsers that could popularize the terno once more. A more affordable soft-bound version will be available, and Bench is donating copies to municipal libraries.










In their monumental task, the authors found significant details they believe are vital knowledge for today’s fashion students and designers.

No one person invented the terno. It was a collective effort. The removal of the panuelo (the square cloth folded triangularly and worn like a great collar) or abaksa in Batangas, which is usually attributed to Ramon Valera, happened way before he removed it. Photos of four women in 1910 without panuelos have been found; Valera begun designing in the 1930s.

The size of terno sleeve had political connotations. Its imposing volume was a marker of the Filipina’s emancipation and right to college education. In the immediate years after 1908, when women started to earn their college diplomas, it was essentially the power suit, much like the shoulder pads in the 1980s.

Now, designers are collapsing the sleeves, why make it small when it is the symbol of nationalism? Wear it with pride and dignity.

The Philippines is the only country in Southeast Asia whose national dress evolved directly from the couture houses of Paris. Higgins claim “We made it our own. The sleeve is our own. It’s a hybrid sleeve.”

For us Filipinos, fashion is not trivial – it is an artifact that tells about a country. So, wear it with pride and dignity!

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