Yes or No: Policewomen, nurses, FAs to wear ternos as uniform

Published September 10, 2020, 6:14 AM

by AA Patawaran

Imagine policewomen in tailored terno tops and shorts manning Rizal Park.

That’s London-based Filipino international designer Lesley Mobo musing about the national dress while we are on a late-night conversation on Messenger.

“Imagine that, with boots!” he sighs.

Lesley Mobo


Why not? Lesley is not the first to think of police uniforms as eye candy on the street. Think of the black pilot shirts tucked into white sulu skirts on the uniformed men of Fiji. Think of the Renaissance-reminiscent blue, red, orange, and yellow number on the Vatican Swiss guards and the heron or ostrich feathers in their caps. Think of the Norwegian traffic police in short, tight shorts on bikes. And the Canadian Mounties in Diana Vreeland-approved red.

In the summer of 2018, the women traffic police officers in Lebanon were each given a new set of uniforms consisting of mini shorts and red berets. It was part of the mayor’s plan to promote tourism in the city. It caused a stir partly because their male colleagues were asked to remain in trousers, but the women loved it and hoped the shorts and berets would be the standard summer uniform.

So yes, Lesley is dreaming up terno tops in linen paired with shorts or trousers on our more visible law enforcers.

“So chic,” he says.

But that’s not all. Lesley is dreaming up the everyday terno or, for lack of a better term, the uniform terno.

I see it as the next logical step after we have succeeded in rescuing the terno from the pages of distant history, thanks to the efforts of many, particularly Love Local pioneer and Ternocon founder Ben Chan, the Cultural Center of the Philippines chair Margie Moran-Floirendo, and many designers like Lesley.

“But my dream really is to fly Philippine Airlines when all the flight attendants are wearing ternos,” he adds. “And when I land at NAIA, I am greeted by the gorgeous sight of palm trees in the arrival hall, where immigration officers in their ternos stamp my passport with that Philippine trademark smile.”

He brings up Thai Airlines, where “the flight attendants serve you in their traditional Thai silk dresses and when you land in Thailand, you are welcomed with Thai orchids at the airport.”


To Lesley, culture is a power tool. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. “I prefer if all airports are scented with sampaguita or ilang ilang diffuser oil. People should experience our identity, not just other people, but also our people, us,” he says.

And to him, the terno is as good a starting point as any. After all, in the world of fashion, despite insufficient marketing, the terno has become a strong Filipino brand and a record of our colonial and post-colonial history, even pre-colonial if you consider the weaves, embroideries, and embellishments that can be incorporated into the design.

So while we have managed to take the terno to the swankiest club or the most casual brunch place or even the office when there is a dress-up occasion like a board meeting, Lesley dreams on.

“Everyday terno on everyday people,” he beams. “The terno should be seen every day, on a policewoman, on a flight attendant, on nurses, on SM salesladies, in school uniforms, even in pambahay duster dresses. The terno should be everywhere.”

I raise the question of practicality and, readily, Lesley lists down his dreams in a more tangible form, even sketching some of them.

1. Policewoman uniform is a terno top in linen.

2. The flight attendant uniform is a terno in piña soda top paired with silk taffeta gathered drawstring skirt.

3. Pambahay is a ruffled terno duster.

4. The nurse’s terno is tailored and in pure cotton.


5. A tailored terno top in breathable cotton paired with a pencil skirt for the SM saleslady.

6. And a whit terno top in cotton paired with a tartan or gingham pleated skirt for the schoolgirl.

It all seems so simple and yet also impossible. I raise the need to reserve the glamour and elegance of the terno for special occasions and Lesley replies with a resounding no. Its daywear potential is endless, he says, and it’s such a waste to confine it to formal or evening events. He’s right. A Natori kaftan, for instance, is good for all occasions and also for non-occasions.



“It’s all about making it angkop sa pang araw-araw na klima (appropriate to everyday weather),” explains Lesley. “It’s about making the sleeve proportions slightly with ease and the armholes slightly relaxed. As for fabrication, it has to be cotton or linen or lightweight denim or rayon blended with cotton, something in which the skin can breathe in this tropical heat and humidity. That way it is also accessible to everyone in terms of prices.”

Another top concern is the washability of the terno. The designer emphasizes that choice of fabrics must ensure easy and inexpensive care. “That’s how you make it modern, by making it wearable every day,” he says.

While Lesley admits that making the terno is a bit of a challenge principally because it is limiting—it’s really all about the sleeves—he says that working with limitations is the best way to master discipline. Just because we can only do this much doesn’t mean we can’t do more than enough. It’s a metaphor for the state of the Philippines: Just because the odds are against us or so we think doesn’t mean we can’t make it as a proud, fully realized nation.

As for respecting the national dress, Lesley has this to say: “It’s interesting how designers are doing their creative take on it. But for me, the terno should maintain the reflection of what a dalagang Filipina is. It should stay elegant, mahinhin (modest, unobtrusive), at maganda (and beautiful). You can’t go wrong with an elegant terno, but of course everyone can play, experiment, and have fun with it.”

But what makes the terno beautiful? Lesley’s answer is that it makes every woman beautiful. He says that one would imagine it perfect on women with delicate and sensual collarbones or long, graceful, swan-like necks, but he finds it surprising that anyone who wears a terno automatically looks elegant.

“It must be the sleeves that frame the face,” Lesley says.