Filipino Fashion History: Styling a Vintage Barong Tagalog
When I lived in Georgia, I worked at Atomic, a vintage shop in my college town. Because swarms of students left town every spring, the summer months in Athens often felt languid, even lazy—at least compared to the intense, anxious fervor induced by finals and essay deadlines pulsing throughout the campus the rest of the year.
During some really heavy, humid afternoons at the shop, a couple hours often slowly seeped by without a single customer walking in. I remember blasting Carly Rae Jepsen’s new album on repeat, dancing as hard as I could until I heard the door swing open. Other times, I would just walk through the shop and peruse the clothing racks to see if anything catches my eye.
One day, I noticed something special.
A cream-colored button-down shirt (stay with me here). Cotton. Soft to the touch, rather fragile, easily creased. Mostly opaque but slightly see-through. Pink trim around the pointed collar and short sleeves with imperfectly handmade scalloped edges. A symmetrical floral pattern of embroidery flows down the garment’s torso, intertwining with white netting and curvilinear lines. Whimsically shaped pink floral outlines and white filled petals, grouped in sisters of three and flourishing among bright green leaves.
This vintage garment was immediately familiar to me as a barong tagalog, but it also piqued my curiosity. The soft and loose fabric, feminized construction, and vibrantly coloured embroidery motifs definitely deviated from both the traditional and modern designs I had seen my Titos, Lolos, and Kuyas wear at weddings, church, debuts, and Filipino cultural shows.
What you need to know about the barong tagalog
Historians Florina H. Capistrano-Baker and Sandra B. Castro write that the barong’s defining elements include a collar, a front opening, embroidered or patterned shirt fronts, and untucked shirt tails. Stephanie Marie R. Coo adds long sleeves, a loose silhouette with side vents, sheer nipis textile (piña, jusi, sinamay, or pinukpok), and a lack of pockets to this list.
Derived from baro ng tagalog, or “dress of the Tagalog,” the barong tagalog has a rich and interesting history. Scholars cite many possible origins and cultural influences. When Spain began its 300-year colonial rule in 1565, pre-colonial Naturales (Tagalogs) were wearing the baro or canga, a collarless, long-sleeved doublet made out of rough cotton and worn with loose, colorful pants. Jose Pitoy Moreno argues that the camisa de chino (a Chinese-inspired collarless garment with long sleeves and calado embroidery) was the precursor of the barong tagalog. Fernando Zialcita traces the barong tagalog to the Indian kurta, a long, translucent shirt worn outside the pants and made out of Indian muslin.
Even though a single origin can’t seem to be agreed upon, most scholars dispute the popular belief that the garment was a tool of colonial oppression. The belief is that by forcing the Indios (the name Spanish colonizers gave to inhabitants of the archipelago) to wear their baros untucked and without pockets, the Spaniards would be able to visibly distinguish their low social status as colonised subjects and even prevent them from hiding weapons or stolen objects. However, pre-colonial Filipinos already wore baros untucked, most likely due to the physical discomfort and skin irritation that resulted from the stiff and prickly texture of the piña and other local fabrics worn in a hot and humid environment.
Styling the barong tagalog my way
When I first tried on the vintage barong that summer afternoon, it reached the length of my hips. I usually tuck my shirts into my pants, but when I tried to tuck in this barong, it just didn’t feel right. Even though there was no doubt in my mind that it was a stylized iteration of a barong tagalog, I didn’t want to style it the way Filipino men usually do, untucked over khaki or black dress pants and a white undershirt underneath.
Fig. 2 A barong tagalog with long sleeves, cuffs, pointed collar, side-vents, and buttons all the way down the torso. Image from Shutterstock.
Fig. 3 A collarless pull-over barong tagalog styled with khaki pants, a black belt, a black watch, and black dress shoes. Image from Shutterstock.
My uniquely feminized barong made me think that it didn’t want that either. With buttons down the left side (signifying a female wearer) rather than the right side (signifying a male wearer), and brightly coloured floral embroidery emphasized throughout the garment, this barong’s most striking feature is that its design and construction indicated its wearer to be a woman.
The embroidery you might see on your Tito, Tatay, Lolo, or Kuya’s barong tagalog probably has decorative floral motifs (geometric shapes are also common), but the thread always blends into the color of the garment itself, making the craftsmanship almost imperceptible—perhaps as an act of masculine subtlety and refinery. Despite being worn at a formal event, it is a signal of “good taste” not to draw too much attention to oneself.
In contrast, the designer of my barong wanted its wearer to pop. Bubblegum pink thread, summertime green leaves, even the white curvilinear motifs seem to glow on the plain cream-coloured canvas.
Instead of traditional long sleeves with rigid cuffs, my barong has short sleeves—similar to the casual polo barong. The soft cotton fabric (instead of the stiffer piña or jusi) also led me to believe that it was meant to be comfortable, everyday wear rather than a formal event.
Fig. 4 Detail of vibrantly coloured embroidery motifs. Photographed by Mark Browning.
The barong stayed in my closet untouched for a few months. I wasn’t sure how to blend my sense of style with the ways I knew you were “supposed” to wear this cultural garment. I had seen Filipino fashion brands like Narra and Vinta Gallery design crop barongs, but I didn’t even think to alter my barong until I was at a studio workshop in grad school.
Throughout this studio workshop course, I challenged myself to learn basic sewing techniques so that I could mend and alter my clothes, to cultivate a relationship of respect and care with my material objects that transcends the throwaway consumer mindset and culture we live in. Using tailor’s chalk, I drew a straight line just below the lowest embroidered plant leaves, cut off the excess fabric, then ironed and hand-sewed an invisible hem. I couldn’t believe how capable and empowered I felt after such a simple fix, and I grew more confident in my creativity and ability to incorporate this traditionally Filipino masculine garment into my everyday wardrobe as a Filipina living in diaspora—although I have to admit, I don’t stand a chance against the impeccable style and swagger of 18th century and 19th century Filipinos.
18th and 19th century mestizo style
During the 18th century, the Spanish mestizo (those with both Indigenous Filipino and Spanish ancestry) began wearing hybrid ensembles that combined European and Indigenous styles. These hybrid ensembles remained popular in the 19th century.
This watercolor drawing (Fig. 5) by José Honorato Lozano depicts a man wearing a hybrid ensemble that includes a sheer barong, Elizabethan-style ruffled collar, cuffs, a silk waistband, and Chinese sayasaya embroidered silk pants. Because the Philippines is shaped from a history of colonialism, imperialism, trade and migration, the layered and overlapping Spanish, Chinese, English, Malay, Arab, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, and American influence are manifested not only through the particular garments worn by Filipinos, but also through the distinct combination of garments—their style.
Fig. 5 “Capitan pasado con trage antiguo” by José Honorato Lozano (1847). Image from Biblioteca Digital Hispánica. Copyright infringement not intended.
From the 1820s-1840s, mestizos wore the barong mahaba, an untucked long sheer shirt that reached above the knee. This version of the barong often has vibrant striped colours and is paired with either solid or striped pants. Inspired by this Rich Mestizo’s gold filigree jewelry, I embellished my outfit with brass earrings, a gold necklace, and light-framed eyeglasses; a vintage bamboo-handle basket purse instead of an umbrella and patterned cloth; a vintage denim mini-skirt that matches the blues in the figure’s pants.
Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Copyright infringement not intended.
Fig. 7 My barong tagalog styled with pointed high heels, a green basket purse, and denim mini skirt. Photographed by Mark Browning.
In this second outfit, I unbuttoned and layered my short-sleeved barong over a long-sleeved light pink vintage blouse (from Mama Loves You Vintage), inverting the traditional method of wearing an undershirt under a long-sleeved barong tagalog. Similar to the lace collar and cuff worn by Fig. 8’s “Un Mestizo Chino,” my “undershirt” has delicate lace detailing around the neckline and a lace trim on my sleeves. I’m still searching for some striped pants, but these vivid golden brown trousers pair really well with my barong. I also added red lipstick to change up the light pastel color scheme.
Fig. 8 “Un Mestizo Chino” Justinian Asunción (1841). Image from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Copyright infringement not intended.
Fig. 9 My barong tagalog styled with vintage trousers and a vintage lace blouse. Photographed by Mark Browning.
If there is any fashion advice I learned from researching 19th century mestizo watercolours, it’s that I need to invest in some stripes. I’ve subtly incorporated stripes with my black heels, paired with a mid-length bright yellow-green linen skirt, gold earrings, and folded short sleeves to draw attention to the scalloped pink trim short sleeves.
Fig. 10 “Un Yndio Natural” Justinian Asunción (1841). Image from the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs in the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Copyright infringement not intended.
Fig. 11 My barong tagalog styled with a yellow-green linen skirt and black high heels. Photographed by Mark Browning.
My style narrative
A style narrative is a story you tell through an outfit you styled. It’s an “auto-biography through the clothing choices [you] make” (Carol Tulloch, 2016). Like Carol Tulloch, I believe that style can be a way to practice agency, because you get to tell your story in your own “words” — garments, accessories, hairstyles, and makeup, in a combination unique to you.
When I style outfits around this barong tagalog, I tell the story that I refuse to limit Filipino clothing to the confines of “costume.” Through the agency of style, I am telling you that I am Filipino not only at a debut or cultural show or wedding. I am Filipino everyday, when I ride the subway, when I get groceries, when I have my morning coffee and my afternoon tea. My identity isn’t an obvious performance; it ebbs and flows in the ways that I style myself everyday.
Fig. 12 An upper-body close-up shot of my second outfit. Photographed by Mark Browning
Fig. 13 My first outfit styling a barong tagalog. Photographed by Mark Browning
Fig. 14 My third outfit styling a barong tagalog. Photographed by Mark Browning.
Bianca Garcia is a fashion researcher and writer who loves to examine the interconnected political, social, cultural, and historical elements of fashion, but also strives to participate in fashion as a creative means of resistance, disruption, and world-building. With a Bachelor’s degree in Women and Gender Studies, her life and writing are heavily informed by an intersectional lens and struggle toward collective justice that she learned from scholars and activists like bell hooks, Angela Davis, Grace Lee Boggs, and Audre Lorde. Bianca is working toward her Master of Arts degree in Fashion from Ryerson University, and her major research project is about the intersection of queer and Filipino/a/x identities.
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