- Bianca Garcia
The Barong Tagalog: Political Fashion
The prestigious world of fine art scoffs at fashion, and the academic world deems it unworthy of intellectual analysis. But fashion has long been intellectual, philosophical, and deeply political. Colonial empires, dictatorships, and totalitarian regimes have historically recognized the potency of fashion as an effective weapon of control. Some examples are: the 1930s Italian fascist regime’s regulation of women’s dress and promotion of the country’s fashion industry to shape national identity; the Qing dynasty’s enforcement of the Manchu queue hairstyle in China as an act of political conformity; and Western European and American colonizers’ erasure of Indigenous dress practices in Canada and the United States.
From the eras of Spanish colonialism to American imperialism to the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, clothing was used by mestizos, “indios (this term was used by the Spanish colonizers to refer to the native Filipinos of the country),” ilustrados, politicians, and pañuelo activists to negotiate the power they had in each of their unique social positions.
How does the barong tagalog fit into the history of Filipinos fighting for liberation from their colonizers?
Historian Mina Roces notes that the struggle for Filipino independence from the United States raised different issues for men and women. Most Filipino men were opposed to female suffrage and were not willing to share political space. For Filipina suffragists, this means they would be supporting a government that would disenfranchise their gender. During the era of American imperialism (1898-1946), Filipino politicians wore Western suits called the Americana instead of the barong tagalog. This intentional clothing choice between Western and Filipino clothing represents Filipino men’s political efforts to sartorially align themselves with the powerful and modern American imperialists.
Fig. 1 A Filipina woman wearing a pañuelo, camisa, sobrefalda, and saya with a trailing cola poses with her husband who wears a white Americana suit for a couple portrait, 1920s. Image from Sydney Flapper tumblr. Copyright infringement not intended.
Filipino women, on the other hand, took on the role of bearers of Filipino cultural tradition. According to Roces, women wore the terno and pañuelo when accompanying their husbands to official events, representing the disenfranchised and colonised subject stuck in the past. This conversation about Filipino women’s fashion is incredibly nuanced though, and requires a whole other blog post to delve into!
Fig. 2 1937 Photograph of President Manuel L. Quezon signing the Women’s Suffrage Bill wearing an Americana and his wife Aurora Quezon wearing a terno and pañuelo. Image from Flickr. Copyright infringement not intended.
The barong tagalog as a symbol of emerging independence
On March 24th, 1934, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised independence to the Philippines after a 10-year period of Commonwealth government through the Tydings-McDuffie Act. Manuel L. Quezon, the first president of the Philippines, wore a western suit and tie to his inauguration, but shortly after he posed for a photograph wearing the Commonwealth barong tagalog.
Designed at the time of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, the Commonwealth barong tagalog was adorned with embroidery of both the Philippine and American flags on the torso. I believe this garment aimed to foster gratitude and good will in Filipinos toward American imperialists, whom they had been fighting fifty years for their independence.
In 1953, Ramon Magsaysay was the first Filipino president to wear a barong tagalog at his Inauguration. This clothing choice was a political strategy to visually communicate his solidarity with the common people. He was ‘a man of the masses,’ not the wealthy elite class dressed in the Americana.
The barong tagalog during Martial Law
Two decades later during the martial law years (1972-1986), President Ferdinand Marcos wore the barong tagalog during all occasions, proclaimed June 5th - 11th as barong tagalog week and designated the garment as the Philippines’ national attire.
The 1970s also marked the emergence of the polo barong, which was made of either cotton, ramie, or chiffonile. This casual version of the barong tagalog was worn as a uniform not only by government employees, but also by Filipinos working in companies such as Manila Electric Company, Ayala Corporation, Asia International Travel Company, Filipinas Synthetic Corporation, Pan-Phil General Insurance, Hertz Rental Cars, Far East Bank, Allied Bank, and Philippine Airlines—just to name a few.
My own Lolo recalls wearing a cotton barong for the wide range of jobs he held in the 1970s and 1980s: advertising executive, university professor, and government consultant. In his own description, my Lolo’s workwear barongs were nothing too intricate or decorative, but rather a uniform to project formal ambience.
Fig. 3 Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos tours the DZAS tape library on the occasion of the station's 20th anniversary. Robert H. Bowman is on Marcos' right; to his left, Leon O. Ty and Hann Browne (pointing). Photo from the FEBC International Archive. Copyright infringement not intended.
Fig. 4 Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos is greeted by FEBC President Robert H. Bowman at the DZAS 20th anniversary celebration. In between is Hann Browne, FEBC missionary, who was a member of the Malacañang press corps. Photo from the FEBC International Archive. Copyright infringement not intended.
Thanks to the widespread barong during the Marcos dictatorship, the barong tagalog transformed from costume to attire. In contrast, the terno became limited to a costume for special occasions. After the Marcos regime, Filipina women did not want to wear the terno due to its association with Imelda Marcos, who is known as the Iron Butterfly.
Ferdinand and Imelda, or the “conjugal dictatorship” as they were called, famously fashioned themselves as Malakas at Maganda, the first man and woman in Filipino mythology. This Marcos myth of the couple as “parents of the nation” was strengthened by their choice to repeatedly wear the terno and barong tagalog.
Even though most Filipinos probably associate the 1970s with the Marcos dictatorship regime, it was also a time of significant variations in the barong tagalog. In addition to the casual, workwear polo barong, the Pierre Cardin barong tagalog emerged. Italian designer Giovanni Sanna created a barong tagalog under the fashion house of Pierre Cardin, who had opened a boutique in Manila in 1971 (a year before martial law was enacted). These historical threads between the Philippines and Europe still have an impact today—Cardin’s Manila boutique manager Jean Paul Gaultier later appropriated the terno during his final 2020 runway show.
Famously worn by President Ferdinand Marcos, the Pierre Cardin barong tagalog had a completely slashed open front, flared sleeves, thickened collar, sharpened cuffs, minimal embroidery, and a close tapered fit to the body. Randy Gonzales notes that Filipino fashion designers were already making these variations to the barong, but the European fashion house and Marcos’ popularisation sent the message that Filipino fashion could be internationally stylish and join the coveted ranks of haute couture.
Filipina fashion, barong style
The barong tagalog is largely seen as Filipino menswear, but there is historical evidence of barongs designed and styled for women (like my own barong!). In 1976, Filipino designer Auggie Cordero created a collection of barongs for women. In an ad campaign that featured all women wearing the barong tagalog, Cordero unbuttoned the front openings, rolled up the sleeve cuffs, flared the collars, and paired the barongs with Ilokano plaid print skirts.
Fig 5. A 1970s photo ad campaign of five women modeling Auggie Cordero’s barong tagalog. Image from The Barong Tagalog: The Philippine National Wear by Visitacion R. de la Torre as seen in “Journey of the Barong Tagalog, 20th Century Philippines Part 21: Auggie Cordero” by Randy Gonzales. Copyright infringement not intended.
A Legacy of Transforming Tradition
Filipino designers and fashion creatives today continue this centuries-long legacy of transforming the barong tagalog.
In the First United Building on Escolta Street in Binondo, Manila, there is a vintage shop run by Jodinand Aguillon — an artist and designer who not only sells vintage Filipino clothing, but also redesigns vintage garments and textiles into completely new objects. Aguillon has used the embroidered barong fabric to create scrunchies, brooches, crop barongs, unisex polo barongs, and even corset style waist cinchers. Aguillon’s gender-diverse re-imaginings of this traditionally male garment speak to the pleasure experienced when Filipino culture, vintage fashion, and queer artistry meet. At Glorious Dias, vintage fashion becomes a space to learn living history and to practice historical traditions in magical ways that fit you. Don’t sleep on the creativity at this shop!
Another Filipino fashion creative making radical traditions through the barong tagalog is Caroline Mangosing of Vinta Gallery. In addition to creating gender-inclusive versions of the barong like the Filipino Deco Crop Barong, the Unisex Biggie Barong, and the Barong Bestida, Mangosing also collaborated with queer artist Alagá at Sining to replace the barong’s European Victorian embroidery with motifs of flora and fauna endemic to the Philippine archipelago. By transforming a colonial clothing tradition into a portrait of the Philippines’ rich biodiversity, Mangosing and Alagá at Sining show us the possibilities of decolonization through design.
Fashion has always been political. Government institutions and totalitarian regimes—like the Marcos dictatorship—often use fashion to cement their positions of power and to put their ideologies into visible, embodied practice. However, like Glorious Dias or VINTA Gallery, we must remember that we can wield fashion to challenge and disrupt our everyday oppressions.
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.
Mina Roces, “Gender, Nation, and the Politics of Dress in Twentieth-Century Philippines.” Gender and History.
Vicente L. Rafael, “Patronage and Pornography: Ideology and Spectatorship in the Early Marcos Years”
Lemire and Riello, Dressing global bodies: The political power of dress in world
Eugenia Paulicelli, Fashion under Fascism: Beyond the Black Shirt.
Alex Castro, “Americana vs. Camisa: The History of Filipino Men’s Fashion” https://www.esquiremag.ph/style/fashion/filipino-mens-fashion-a2289-20190401-lfrm6
Amieriella Anne Bulan, “‘Malakas at Maganda’ as propaganda: Deceitful art during Martial Law” Noli Soli. https://nolisoli.ph/49524/malakas-at-maganda-as-a-propaganda-deceitful-art-during-martial-law-abulan-20180921/
“Decolonizing Design: Vinta’s Modern Barongs” Vinta Gallery. https://vintagallery.com/blogs/news/decolonizing-design-vinta-modern-barongs
Randy Gonzalez, “The Barong Tagalog, 20th Century Philippines Part 27: The Pierre Cardin Barong Tagalog.” Pineapple Industries. https://pineappleind.com/blogs/about-us/journey-of-the-barong-tagalog-20th-century-philippines-part-17-the-pierre-cardin-barong-tagalog
Randy Gonzalez, “The Barong Tagalog, 20th Century Philippines Part 21: Auggie Cordero” Pineapple Industries. https://pineappleind.com/blogs/about-us/journey-of-the-barong-tagalog-20th-century-philippines-part-21-auggie-cordero
Britannica, “Tydings-McDuffie Act United States ” Tydings-McDuffie Act, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tydings-McDuffie-Act