Thursday, October 26, 2006

A History of the Barong Tagalog

Here's an interesting bit of trivia that my fiance forwarded to me in an e-mail. Who would have guessed the humble beginnings of such a beautiful article of clothing!

During the Spanish occupation of the Philippines (over 300 years from 1561-1889) the barong tagalog was required by the Spanish government for Filipinos (Indios) to be worn at most times to show the difference between the rich and the poor. It was said that the poor who serve the rich must always be in uniform. Take the chauffeurs, maids, and employees as examples.They are usually in uniform to immediately distinguish them from the employers.

When the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, to make it abundantly clear who's the boss, a dress code was imposed. Men were not allowed to tuck their shirttails in. That was the mark of his inferior status. Second, the cloth material should be transparent, so that he could not conceal any weapon that could be used against the masters. Third, as a precaution from
thievery, pockets were not allowed on the shirt.

By the turn of the century a new middle class began to emerge among the Filipinos. They were known as the Principalia. They mastered Spanish laws and were able to obtain title to lands. They became successful in business and agriculture and sent their sons to be educated abroad. They were privileged to build their houses in the poblacion around the plaza near the seats of power.

Only a member of the Principalia could be addressed by the title DON, and only they were allowed to vote. They had all the trappings of power and status, but for one undeniable fact: they still had to wear their shirttails out, if only to remind them that they were still Indios.

What the Spanish authorities did not smother out was the Filipino's will power and determination to psychologically conquer their colonial masters, through improvisation and re-interpretation. The Filipino's stylistic bongga (predisposition to flashy dressing) was a reaction against the overt discrimination and insensitive oppression of the Spaniards. For example, Filipinos were forbidden to use imported silk and fabrics for their Barong, so they ingeniously used pineapple leaves to weave the pina/jusi cloth of the barong, turning the outfit into such delicate material, of luminous silky rich mixture much finer than silk. To add insult to injury, they hand-embroidered the front with such exquisite abandon: Calado and hand-work all over. Palgrave, the ethnographer noted, "The Capitan's shirt was the native barong, of fine and delicate fiber, embroidered and frilled; it was light and cool and not tucked in the trousers". (Corpuz, 74)

The Barong Tagalog gained power, prestige, and status when President Quezon, the first Filipino president, declared it the National Dress. The status of the lowly inferior Barong thus became another symbol of Filipinos' resistance to colonization.

After World War II, Philippine presidents began wearing the Barong Tagalog at their installation into office and on every formal state occasion. In contemporary times the Barong Tagalog is the power dress. As an abogado de campanilla, you cannot afford not to wear the Barong Tagalog when arguing a case in Philippine courts.

Today, every visitor and foreign dignitary invited to a Malacanang Palace state function must, by necessity, and dictated by protocol, be dressed to the nines in a Barong Tagalog. The invitations specifically say come in "Barong" instead of the traditional "Coat and Tie". Thus, everyone invited to dinner at the Presidential Palace and in many Filipino homes will unknowingly and unwittingly have to experience directly, what it feels to have to wear his shirttails out, to suffer the indignity of having the material of his barong transparent so that he cannot conceal any weapon; and horrors, to be accused directly of incipient thievery by having no pockets in his barong to put the silver.

(photo courtesy of redtangent at

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