I will never forget the words Prabal Gurung told me over the phone late last year: “Why are clothes chic, and who gets to decide?” Answering his own question, the designer responded “The colonizers do.” With this idea now looming over my interest in fashion, Gurung’s words moved me the same way people might feel when discussing a mid-life crisis. I’ve lived the history of the European Court Dress through coffee table books in my home, watched numerous Galliano-era Dior Couture shows, and studied the rise, fall, and now, resurgence of the house of Schiaparelli. Even before my start in the fashion industry, I traced the collections birthed by the major European houses dominating the scene: Valentino, Prada, Burberry, Versace. But when it came to how fashion played a role in the Philippines, the base of my familial lineage, I was clueless. Has mainstream fashion forced me to unknowingly oppress my appreciation for traditional Filipino clothing?
As the question burned in the back of my mind, action would unfortunately only occur amid the recent surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans. I refuse to shed a light on the specifics of these intolerable acts, but I will say this: The deranged few who have let the racist sentiments of “Kung-Flu” and “Chinese Virus” get the best of them are attempting to push Asian Americans into a corner of shame. They want us to minimize ourselves more than we already have, and to that, I push back by celebrating my Asianness even more. Assimilating to whiteness for survival, begone! It’s time to wear our Asian cultures like a badge of honor—whether by recognizing the influence that our natural features have on the beauty industry, or how our ancestors’ healing practices are responsible for mainstream wellness techniques. This certainly doesn’t make us more or less worthy of equal treatment, but it is empowering to truly recognize our many ways of influence. As someone who has always used fashion as a tool of expression, pride, and fantasy, this manifests into a new, long-overdue embrace of the two distinct forms of mainstream Filipino formal attire: the Barong Tagalog and Filipiniana Dress.
My novel enthusiasm for the Barong Tagalog is actually pretty shameful, considering I grew up surrounded by it (which, perhaps, proves Gurung’s point). While I could rely on YouTube or Google in helping me learn more about the garment, I decided to turn to my best source: my own family. As I’ve spent much of my life studying European fashion history, this would be my first lesson in the way fashion played a role in the Philippines. As something of a treat for me, my cousin and aunt pulled out every example of the Barong Tagalog they own during a FaceTime chat. For men, the Barong Tagalog is identified by straight lines, mild transparency, and intricate embroidery topped with a Mandarin collar and is worn for formal events; think black tie attire for the Philippines. The elements are paralleled in the women’s renditions, except they’re accompanied by a shawl (for added drama!). My cousin, grandfather, and father each donned one during their weddings. Like London’s Savile Row, small shops like Vinta Gallery and Exclusively His Tailoring are keeping the native tradition alive by specializing in tailored, bespoke Barong Tagalogs. “It’s not another European piece of clothing,” my father told me while reminiscing on the moments when he wore the revered shirt. “I only wore one when I needed to be at my best; my most proud.” Sadly, while I’ve always understood the importance of the shirt in my family’s traditions, I can only recall wearing it once. To what event remains lost in my mind.
While I sifted through these memories, my cousin pulled out a framed photo of my grandmother, Erlinda. Immortalized within the brass frame, she dons a white dress that could easily be mistaken as a piece from a haute couture bridal collection. With a straight neckline and butterfly shoulder that would put Givenchy’s ‘90s power shoulders to shame, the Filipiniana dress is a symbol of esteemed pride. Considering that my grandmother reigned as my family’s matriarch, it is fitting that she would wear it, and be eternalized in a photograph with it on. According to my cousin, Kate, my grandmother wore this dress for the final time in the Philippines at my cousin Dyan and Colt’s wedding in 2015. “Well, I never expected to have a grand wedding, but I knew I wanted to pay tribute to our heritage,” Dyan said to me. While the dress on my grandmother easily signified her rank in our family, Dyan’s wedding entourage wore renditions of the same Filipiniana dress—some hemmed shorter, some worn traditionally, but still, with those signature butterfly shoulders.
Learning more about the Barong Tagalog and the Filipiniana dress did give me an ounce of regret for not appreciating these garments sooner. The Barong Tagalog was a beacon of pride for my father. The Filipiniana dress is a symbol of my loving grandmother’s legacy. And Dyan insisting on placing Filipino heritage at the forefront of her wedding reminded me why I even fell in love with fashion in the first place. While I’ve had plenty of discussions about combatting racism, attended protests, and tweeted a few sentences denouncing the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans, it seems that I’ve let white supremacy take a hold of me in a very different way.
Looking into my own closet, I see 10 different designers: four are Italian, two are Parisian, two are American, one is English, and one is Japanese. None are Filipino. None are even from Southeast Asia. And while the cosmopolitan garments hanging in my room are surely chic, what’s the point of a wardrobe without sentiment behind it? And what is the desire to accumulate heirlooms if none are directly linked to where my parents are from, or where my grandmother is from? While I take notice of the seeming disappearance of the Barong Tagalog and Filipiniana dress in my generation of Filipino Americans, I’ve already begun the hunt for the nearest Barong Tagalog tailors. I figure it’s also good timing, with summer on the horizon. For European fashion junkies, call it bespoke resort-wear. For other Filipino-Americans, call it pride.