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Fashion statements for the nation’s 125th

By LISA GUERRERO NAKPIL, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 11, 2023 5:00 am

Destiny is sometimes wrought by what you wear—from the emperor’s new clothes to Kendall Roy’s P30,000 Loro Piana baseball caps. When fashion intersects with fine art, then you have the makings of superb pieces of history that are waiting to be decoded. It’s the perfect pastime for the 125th year of Philippine nationhood this June 12.

One stunning artifact known as the “George M. Curtis Letras y Figuras,” after the medieval art form of spelling out letters in human figures, is one of the highlights of the much-awaited León Gallery Spectacular Mid-Year Auction on June 17.

The well-heeled Filipina in lace panuelo and updo for her 19th-century OOTD; beside a country lass in checked saya. Both from the Curtis Letras y Figuras

It is full of vignettes of the “aristocracia del tapis” or “pinafore aristocrats,” to paraphrase anthropologist Stephanie Coo in her book Clothing the Colony. Dressing to slay was one of the first Filipino impulses defining our identity; such elaborate finery would distinguish them not just as top-tier members of Tagalog society to be reckoned with, but also the equals of the snooty Spanish and creole classes.

Detail from the “George M. Curtis Letras y Figuras” depict Filipinos in their favorite hue of blue. Indigo was a prime export in the Manila-Massachusetts trade.

Painted in 1877 by an enterprising contemporary of Justiniano Asuncion called Marcos Ortega, it is a microcosm of our nation’s economic history expressed through the sartorial.

Detail from the “George M. Curtis Letras y Figuras” depict Filipinos in their favorite hue of blue. Indigo was a prime export in the Manila-Massachusetts trade.

The tapis, or overskirt, would signify all manner of origins, from the provinces whose looms could only create the simplest square patterns to the meanings behind the color of the cloth. Notice, for example, the red fabric of Bonifacio’s trousers that stood for the working man. The cheapest kind to be had was in red, as opposed to the preferred hues of blue.

“Pounding Rice” by Vicente Manansala expresses the common man’s red and white colorway, which symbolized Bonifacio and the Katipunan.

In “Pounding Rice,” Vicente Manansala expresses this same colorway for the lives of “every Juan.” Mang Enterng paints a woman dressed in the barest of women’s undershirts, a corpiño, or camisole, not to be mistaken for the more expensive kimono or overshirt worn by more moneyed damsels. With it, she wears a saya or skirt in red, echoing the color scheme of the Great Plebian’s garb in his various monuments.

In the Curtis “Letras,” a series of figures are in rich blues, and one imagines this was not so much because they were so commonly worn but because indigo was the stuff of Mr. Curtis’ trade, an important export from Manila to Massachusetts along with sugar and hemp.

There are more prosperous men to be spied on in the painting, including a long-nosed foreigner (who we suspect is Curtis himself) in a pith helmet. (That, by the way, is said to have originated from our very own “salacot” fashioned from hollowed-out gourds.) Another worthy wears a shirt worn untucked under a short jacket. A bevy of matrons, their hair pinned up in chignons, wear prim lace panuelos that signify their caste in the principalia, or native elite.

Carlos P. Romulo owned Amorsolo’s “Woman with Banga,” with its appliqued sleeves in cañamazo fabric.

Also in the June auction is a dazzling Amorsolo beauty. “Woman with Banga” is one of the maestro’s favorite muses; painted in 1929, it is almost certainly one of his earliest. Fashion historian Gino Gonzales says, “It may not be easy to decide if she was truly a country lass or one of his well-to-do clients who liked to play dress-up.” The fineness of the floral appliqué on her sleeves—made of the skillfully woven “cañamazo”—matches the deep blue and gold of her tapis. The “alampay” or shawl is also artfully tied into a headscarf, notes Gonzales.

“Women with Flowers” by Anita Magsaysay-Ho depicts females in kimonas.

The female headscarf would be Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s signature detail, as spied in the charming canvas of women with baby chicks that spill out of the frame. Her enthralling “Women with Flowers,” once owned by the glamorous fashion plate Zita Fernandez Feliciano, depicts them wearing graceful kimonas while arranging hothouse blooms.

Anita Magsaysay-Ho’s women with baby chicks feature the alampay (shoulder shawl) worn as a headscarf.

“Woman with Banga” belonged to master diplomat Gen. Carlos P. Romulo, acquired at a time when both men, both patriots were about to embark on the golden years of their careers. Another general’s prized possession is also featured: the colorful Benito Natividad who fought beside Hen. Antonio Luna, was felled in a hail of bullets and became a cripple, albeit a daredevil one, as a result. The wounds would save him from being in Luna’s company on that appointment with death in Cabanatuan. The painting at hand is a country scene by Guillermo Tolentino—a friend and confidante of Amorsolo who would make his name creating the nation’s most important monuments, including the Olympian Bonifacio in Caloocan. This painting features a young woman in a red tapis—this time worn as a modest malong, or sheath—dipping her toes into a crystalline stream. All the defining features of a Filipino home are around her—the thatch hut, the banana trees and coconut groves, the fertile plains and clear skies that would make this country worth fighting and dying for.

A Guillermo Tolentino painting that once belonged to the feisty Gen. Benito Natividad features a beauty in a scarlet malong.

Our 125th year of forming our nation also includes the making of our identity. It is, after all, also the 125th birthday of the Philippine flag, whose proud tricolor we can rejoice in seeing from Magsaysay-Ho to Manansala, as well as Malang Santos’ enchanting vista of a Manila maiden in fetching butterfly sleeves in his “City Vendor.”