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Few things are as uniquely Filipino as the Barong Tagalog. Do you know, however, why they have such an unusual style, how they originated or when they should be worn, even by expats?
The barong is the dress shirt, or men’s formal wear, of the Philippines. A plain barong is worn during the day and for business, with the more elaborate barongs kept for formal and party wear – quite surprising really when you realize the barong was introduced as a mark of social inferiority.
The story goes that under the draconian ‘Dress Code ‘ laws imposed by Spanish rulers the indigenous peoples were permitted to wear only ‘native’ clothing, so Filipinos were forced to wear the barong. At that time the style and type of clothes you wore indicated social standing. The Spanish felt that by forcing Filipinos to wear a native barong it reinforced their ‘inferiority’ in relation to their Spanish ‘overlords’.
The Spanish dress code was enforced for practical as well as social reasons; mainly to prevent Filipinos from carrying concealed weapons. To make sure of this the Spanish demanded that barong material be transparent and, as Filipinos should have nothing to hide or to lose, pockets were not permitted and shirt-tails could not be tucked into trousers. Simply put the barong’s original shape, design and style of wear was wholly due to the demands of the Spanish dress code law.
With the passage of time upper class Filipinos wanted to show their status. However, while these local ‘aristocrats’ had businesses, large houses, money and apparent power they were still subject to the Spanish dress code. Raging against this they wanted clothes that, while complying with the dress code, reflected their higher status.
Because indios were forbidden access to imported silk or fabrics they developed luxurious, translucent materials from local resources. But having such material wasn’t enough, so to finish the garment and display its finery they embroidered the front. This led to the barong being the most exquisite shirts ever produced. These style developments meant that while the Spanish believed native clothing to be inferior, and to convey inferior status, the barong material and embroidery far outshone any Spanish finery.
The barong finally took its place among Filipino society when, as the first president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, President Quezon, made the barong part of the Filipino national dress. That brought the status of the barong full circle: from a garment that mirrored Filipino oppression and Spanish mastery to a symbol of high social stature and Filipino mastery of their own country.
Today the barong is worn with pride by all from the highest to the lowest in the land. It is an essential requirement at formal parties, official functions and weddings and a garment that everyone – including expatriates – should have at least one of in their wardrobe.
When buying a barong cost, availability and modern cleaning methods mean that cotton barongs are most common. For formal occasions, however, more traditional materials like jusi, (produced from banana fibre), were preferred although, from the 1960s, mechanically woven silks from China became the fabric of choice and the banana leaf jusi fabric was no longer produced.
While jusi was a delicate material, top of the range barongs are made from piña – very fine pineapple fibres. The problem is that pure piña can only be hand woven very slowly, with the best weavers able to produce only a few inches of material a day, making it very expensive. A good compromise between quality and price is a barong made from piña seda. This combination of piña and silk thread vastly increases hand weaving speed, while giving the same translucent luxury as ‘pure’ piña cloth, but at a much lower price.
(This article, by British writer Tom Henry, first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Angeles Xtra magazine. Tom Henry has since published his ‘Expat Survivors Guide to the Philippines’).