Why the ‘terno’ and the SONA are a perfect match

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The Actress Cielito Legaspi photographed in the 1950s with a cocktail "terno," a semiformal version worn to suit several events and occasions. Photo from ROWELL SANTIAGO/FASIHIONABLE FILIPINAS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Even before the former First Lady Imelda Marcos made it a staple in her duties as the wife of the country’s chief executive, the terno had enjoyed quite an evolution from the Spanish colonial period up to the postwar era, during which period it developed under the auspicious hands of those who knew about the power of fashion. In its heyday, coinciding with the golden age of haute couture from 1947 to 1957, the terno became a rarified specimen of clothing, reflecting the society that donned it. Though it always carried upper-class bearings, Filipino women themselves chose to evolve the terno, deconstructing its use from formal gatherings to semiformal functions and choosing to drop a piece or two from the ensemble, but never stripping it of its essence.

The terno bore the mark of Imelda Marcos even after her husband’s rule had ended, and this meant that any associations with it were avoided by future administrations, choosing instead to revert to a simplified version of the national dress, such as the kimona and the Maria Clara. Though often relegated to the sidelines, the terno enjoyed a revival from time to time, with one moment where it continues to be able to take the spotlight being the president’s annual state of the nation address (SONA), where attendees are required to wear Filipiniana — a theme that over the years has expanded into some sort of Oscar red-carpet pageantry, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to shift the dress code into simpler business attire to rid the day of the perceived unnecessary pomp that’s become common in the recent SONAs.

One of the casualties of this proclamation is the terno, which grows more misapprehended as a status symbol of exuberance and excess. Mark Lewis Higgins, co-author of the book “Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs 1860-1960” with Gino Gonzales, makes a case for this misunderstood piece, calling it the deserved national dress. Below are edited excerpts from CNN Philippines Life’s interview with Higgins.

Pillow vendors photographed in Cebu, circa 1910s. They are all wearing "camisa," "panuelo," and the cotton "saya" commonly worn by women during the period. Photo from LOPEZ MUSEUM AND LIBRARY/FASHIONABLE FILIPINAS

How do you think the call for simplicity in the SONA dress code will affect the terno, with the SONA being one of the rare national occasions where the Filipino people can see a showcase of the terno being worn by many?

First of all, I don’t have a particular attachment to the terno. I’m just telling you this from a very clinical perspective. It’s nothing to do with patriotism, preference, or ulterior motives, I guess because I grew up with my mother, who’s from the postwar generation. This is what I saw, this is what I learned, and because of working on the “Fashionable Filipinas,” the research that I did, the story that I knew existed, we were able to put supporting evidence of it. You have all kinds of Filipino or native dress in this country. Wherever you travel you have the different tribal clothes, you go to the south you have the malong, etc. And all of those are perfectly credible national dresses. But if you really study the history of the country, the terno was the one that really had its own unique trajectory. It was evolved deliberately by women.

If you look at the baro’t saya, which is a T-shaped garment with the sort of sarong that you can find all over Southeast Asia in one form or another. The terno is distinct to us because first of all, the ancestor of the terno was the Maria Clara or in correct terminology, the traje de mestiza. It was adapted from what the Spanish women were wearing around the 1500-1600s and that evolved into the terno. If you really want to be purist about something, for me what is truly Pinoy is that we are a unique hybrid of cultures, of both East and West, and that’s what makes us special. The traje de mestiza was adapted from Spanish clothing, and the baro’t saya is sort of generic Southeast Asian clothing. It’s really the terno that is unique. It is the most sophisticated and it looks like no other dress in the world.

You really just have to temper what you’re wearing according to the time of day and the occasion. You’re talking about a somber government function. You should look very elegant, very dignified, but please don’t wear a train, don’t wear fully sequined fabric or shiny stuff at three in the afternoon.

How do you think the political connotations of the terno affect its standing?

Well, obviously the person most associated with the terno is Imelda Marcos. And also because the Marcoses were in power for a very long time, pretty much all my life growing up they were in power, so by the time they left, she was so closely associated with the terno that the following administration obviously didn’t help by sort of condemning it and wearing the kimona, which is basically a baro’t saya with no sleeves. It’s much easier to make.

You have decades that passed since the Marcos periods have ended, and you have designers who didn’t know how to make the sleeves properly anymore. And the other stuff is easier to make and easier to keep. So there are many reasons why it wasn’t resurrected, I think. But there’s a very important section in our book that talks about semiformal versions of the terno, because after World War II, there was such a resurgence of patriotism, because finally, the Philippines was an independent country. Filipina women, which my mother was very much a part of that generation, championed the terno so much that they found ways to fit it into every sort of level of society and occasion. If you were attending a formal luncheon, you would wear a short terno made of cotton, or linen ternos. Or if you went to a cocktail party that wasn’t completely formal, you’d wear a cocktail dress with terno sleeves. That sensibility has been lost, I find.

In answer to the overdressing at the SONA, there really is an etiquette that the postwar generation knew that is lost today, where you have some pretty ridiculous outfits in the SONA because it has become something like an Oscar red carpet. That’s not correct either. There should be daytime ternos. These semiformal and daytime ternos in the 50s, they didn’t have beadwork, they didn’t have bling on them although they would be embellished with Swiss straw, or if they were embroidered they would use wooden beads and stuff. There was a whole hierarchy of what sort of terno you wore for the occasion and time of day. And I think people need to relearn that now.

Archival advertisements from the 1910s to the 1950s featuring Filipinas wearing various versions of the "terno." Photo from FASHIONABLE FILIPINAS

Why do you think people have had such a narrow perspective on the terno and what it represents, that there’s only one idea of what a terno is?

Amnesia. That’s the real answer. Look, fashion also changed. By the 1960s, it was not only Mrs. Marcos who was closely associated with wearing the terno. Beginning as far back as the 1920s, there was already a struggle to keep the terno alive. In the late 1890s, the Americans came and there was a struggle between wearing the terno or the Western dress, but there were conscious efforts in the 20s to keep the terno alive so it became required for formal occasions, as in the Philippine Women's University, where that was the graduation dress.

There were conscious efforts to keep it going but sadly by the time the Marcos period ended there were two things that happened. One was Imelda; the other was fashion became very evolved and very from the street. And let’s face it, the terno is very impractical and pretty uncomfortable. They’re not easy to make. They’re not easy to keep, so women, I think, happily said: “OK, great! Let’s not wear them anymore.”

You have to realize that is the one dress that tells the history of the country. Which is why when I started meeting with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, they saw that right away. Because you have the terno that I donated to them, which were from the late 50s, from my mother. I realized, and I had a discussion with them, this is an artifact that shows you the society back then. There’s this couture dress that was sort of echoing the new look that was happening in Paris yet it had the distinct butterfly sleeves. That tells you a lot about the progressive society, how forward-thinking they were, how it’s in a way patriotic but at the same time they were putting couture elements to the national dress. No other country did that. That’s what makes it unique.

People in power, whether in politics or in fashion or any kind of arts authorities have to really think about what you’re saying before you say it. Because I think we like to give these sweeping statements that can make us appear heroic at times, but think about what you’re removing from the history of our country by doing that.

What can be the role of local designers to help create a resurgence for the terno?

When we did the “SLIM: Salvacion Lim Higgins – Philippine Haute Couture 1947-1990” book in 2009, a lot of young stylists and fashion people wore the “terno.” They no longer have the baggage people my age had. Fashion changed; it became simpler. And then the terno got relegated to cultural affairs — it was just too impractical. But I remember when I was a kid, when you went to church, even in the province, you’d see old ladies wearing terno” with panuelos! This was the early 60s. It’s not that long ago.

In terms of simplifying, as a creative person, designer, or stylist, you have to really analyze what that means. For example, if you want to wear a barong that’s not ostentatious … There is a way to dress in an austere way, whether you’re male or female, but without destroying industries. You’ll put a lot of people out of business if you stop embroidering barongs. You’re going to put whole communities out of business. Again, this is a whole different story about how barong evolved, but be careful what you’re erasing from history when you proclaim a message about something. People in power, whether in politics or in fashion or any kind of arts authorities, you have to really think about what you’re saying before you say it. Because I think we like to give these sweeping statements that can make us appear heroic at times, but think about what you’re removing from the history of our country by doing that. The terno was one of the casualties. I think the former President Cory Aquino didn’t help by not wearing it. But then again, I’m not faulting her. But if you look at the history of fashion, whenever there is an upheaval, the clothing changes, which is why, as Diana Vreeland said, fashion can tell you the history of the country.

Terno sleeves from the 1950s in “cañamazo” embroidered with Swiss straw. Photo by JO ANN BITAGCOL/SLIM'S FASHION AND ARTS SCHOOL/FASHIONABLE FILIPINAS

The SONA, though, is a rare event that can highlight the terno ...

I think that’s great, but you really just have to temper what you’re wearing according to the time of day and the occasion. You’re talking about a somber government function. You should look very elegant, very dignified, but please don’t wear a train, don’t wear fully sequined fabric or shiny stuff at three in the afternoon.

Do you think there are other venues for the terno to flourish?

Absolutely. We’re hoping Bench does a terno ball. Things like that, that is what will create that resurgence. Maria Claras and kimonas are much easier to make for a designer and much easier to store for the client. But in my opinion, the terno is the formal national dress. So what if it’s not easy to keep or not easy to wear? It’s the national dress. It constantly reminds you you’re wearing the national dress.

Some people think the terno is an artifact and not an actual piece of clothing that you can wear. Is there a danger that, with all these proclamations, the terno will just be relegated to a national costume?

I can’t predict the future, to tell you honestly, but to tell you from the bottom of my heart, it’s the one national dress that deserves to remain because, as I said, it tells a bigger story than the others.