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Fashion that spells romance

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Feb 14, 2023 5:00 am

Whether we are conscious of it or not, a lot of our notions of love and romance have been shaped by images, which includes fashion that capitalizes on these emotions to capture our imagination.

Conversely, romantic relationships are the stuff of dreams and inspirations to create garments as well as many forms of art, from paintings to theater, dance and film.

When it comes to grand passions, few can match the Philippine master painter Juan Luna, who was known for his tumultuous relationship with his wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, whom he accused of having an affair with a certain Monsieur Dussaq.

In a tragic denouement in Paris in 1892, out of jealousy, he killed Paz and his mother-in-law and stood trial for murder but was acquitted the following year on the grounds that his act was a crime of passion.

“Tampuhan” by Juan Luna, 1895

Two years later, he painted Tampuhan, which encapsulates a Filipino love affair like no other. The lover’s quarrel, one that the artist knew so well, is set in the sala of a bahay na bato. The couple are displaying “tampo” over an argument or misunderstanding. The man is looking out at the street while the woman is seated, her back turned away from him while gazing at the floor.

Her resplendent traje de mestiza gown reflects the fashion as well as the mores and relationships of the era. The pañuelo was for modesty and a deterrent to men’s advances since it was affixed with pins that could prick those who became too intimate.

The man is looking at women in the neighbor’s house, a warning that if his girlfriend continues with her sulking, he will leave her for someone else—typical of the macho-culture dominance of men in the 19th century. But the sheer majesty of her stance in her regal outfit—those exaggerated sleeves and sumptuous saya—can command unquestioned loyalty while at the same time exude the confidence in the power of one’s femininity. She may very well win by staunchly making “tampo” the longest, knowing the man will surrender to her charms.

“Mango Vendor” by Fernando Amorsolo, 1930, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paulino Que

Starting in the 1920s, the traje started transitioning with the skirt narrowing and the sleeves flattening into the butterfly sleeves of what is now the terno. Rapid urbanization as an American colony created a nostalgia for rural, idyllic life, which was depicted in the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo—farm scenes where women wore the balintawak, the country version of the terno.

Replacing the pañuelo and sobrefalda of the previous century were matching alamapay and tapis in fiesta colors and prints of bold stripes and tropical flora. It epitomized an idealized romance that Filipinas in the city would wear in studio photos of the 1920s and ’30s with accouterments like fishing tools and farming implements.

Rogelio Dela Rosa serenading Mila Del Sol in Sarung Banggi, 1947 LVN Pictures movie still courtesy of Archivo 1984, featured in the book Philippine Cinema 1897-2020 by

The liberation from WWII and our rise as an independent nation made the 1940s the start of a new era in fashion when the pañuelo was discarded by the youth to match their modern lifestyle. Movies popularized love teams in scenes like Rogelio dela Rosa in a barong serenading Mila del Sol sporting this new look in a banca—generating excitement among fans who would dream about this type of romance and emulate the stars’ outfits.

Edith Nakpil Rabat in a Salvacion Lim terno, 1956, Slim’s Fashion and Arts School collection

In the 1950s to the ’60s, with the influence of Dior and Balenciaga, designers like Ramon Valera and Salvacion Lim Higgins experimented with form, creating sculptural shapes. Their couture gowns epitomized the Golden Age of High Fashion, as seen in annual balls like the Kahirup of the Negrense sugar barons and the Mancomunidad Pampangueña of the Kapampangan hacenderos. These couture pieces would be immortalized in the most beautiful portraits of society matrons by Claudio Bravo in 1968. 

Imelda Marcos by Claudio Bravo, 1968

In the ’70s, ternos would not be seen as often except at state functions and parties led by First Lady Imelda Marcos and her Blue Ladies and Catholic Church activities or fiestas. After the EDSA revolution in 1986, President Corazon Aquino would not wear the terno associated with the former regime, making it even less popular until the 1990s, when there were efforts to revive it through projects like Jamming an Old Saya by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and in 2018 with the first Ternocon competition, which recently celebrated its third edition that revived the balintawak.

Ternocon 3 Gold Medal winner entry by Yssa Inumerable of Parañaque City

This edition brought the romance and prestige back to the national dress with the Gold winner, Yssa Inumerable, referencing portraits of Justiniano Asuncion and the Gibson Girl to create a melding of male and female silhouettes for the modern woman with pastel shades of inabel embroidered with florals in traditional burdang Taal.

Ternocon 3 Bronze Medal winner entry by Glady Rose Pantua of Zamboanga City

Bronze winner Glady Rose Pantua takes us to her idyllic Zamboanga town with beaded Yakan weave trousers paired with a top hand-embroidered with love just the way her lola taught her as a child.

Ternocon 3 Chief Mentor’s Medal Winner entry by Amor Albano of Ilocos Norte

Amor Albano also went bucolic, but to a bukid in her native Ilocos, using a canvas of organza layered to simulate brushstrokes, with cutouts of a bahay kubo scene that she crafted with the delicacy of the Bulacan pabalat pastillas wrappers.

Ternocon 3 entry by finalist Cheetah Rivera of Quezon City

Cheetah Rivera’s ode to the countryside, on the other hand, are the butterflies of Tawi-Tawi and Palawan, with pleated wings fluttering to enchanting melodies.

Ternocon 3 entry by finalist Dee Javier of Metro Manila

For Dee Javier, the tune of a love affair that ended in broken promises continued to haunt him, translating the experience to a balintawak draped like a crumpled love letter thrown away and swept by the wind, its handwritten verses barely visible and smeared by tears.

Ternocon 3 Silver Medal winner entry by Gabbie Sarenas of Rizal

Silver winner Gabbie Sarenas, on the other hand, found inspiration in the love story of the sampaguita, where Lakambini and Lakan Galing made the vow “Sumpa kita (I promise you)” to be reunited after the latter went to battle, but alas, the former waited in vain, and when she realized that her lover would never return, she died out of grief as the sweet-smelling flowers blossomed in profusion over her grave.

For Gabbie, her versatile balintawak of mix-and-match components that are intricately embroidered with our national flower “is a love letter to the Philippines. I’ve always been on that path. It’s a promise, it’s always been that soul of the sampaguita that I put in my heart.”