The Modern Barong

Published June 16, 2021, 10:00 PM

by MB Lifestyle

This distinctly Pinoy dress shirt has been reshaped by technology

PHILIPPINE TEXTILE TODAY From left: Handwoven, cotton Men’s polo shirt; cocoon ladies’ barong; handwoven, black, cotton blouse

What is it about the barong Tagalog that instantly makes a man appear dressier and more dignified? Chalk it up to its crisp texture, simple yet elegant design, and timeless appeal.

“It’s so part of our cultural backbone that if you do not see a Barong Tagalog anymore, then it probably means that there are no more Filipinos,” says Emil Nadres of EN Barong Filipino, Inc., the family-owned enterprise of traditional barong Filipino founded by Felicidad Nadres in 1961. “In all levels of our social structure, when you see someone in a barong Tagalog, there’s something special happening at that moment.”

As purveyors of the proudly Filipino men’s attire, the company even came up with Garment of Honor, Garment of Identity, a coffee table book covering all things barong Tagalog, from its meticulously researched history to the back story behind its embroidery motifs, and the humble artisans behind the homespun fabrics.

CAMISA FUERA Piña silk barong

While the traditional shirt has remained largely unchanged—it’s still the embroidered top, long-sleeved and short-sleeved, made with sheer textile like piña or abaca, and worn over an undershirt, belted trousers, and dress shoes—it has also evolved with the times. Gentlemen who usually have theirs custommade by a tailor can now get them off the rack. EN Barong Filipino’s partnership with SM malls began in 1991, when the clothing label was invited to sell its wares at SM Megamall and SM North Edsa. Today, the brand can be found in 30 of the retail giant’s chain of malls nationwide.

It’s now also available online, not just through its website, but in fairs like those organized by HABI The Philippine Textile Council. Engaged in the preservation, promotion, and enhancement of Philippine textiles through education communication, and research, the council recently opened Likhang HABI Kalayaan Online Fair, a virtual event launched on Independence Day and running till June 20. Over 30 local exhibitors are participating in the online shopping platform whose categories include Fashion and Accessories, Nature and Wellness, Pop Culture, Home Office, and Gift Ideas for Dad.

EMBROIDERY DETAILS The barong up close

The relationship between HABI and EN Barong Tagalog goes way back when HABI founder Maria Isabel Ongpin and president Adelaida Lim asked Felicidad Nadres to introduce them to local weavers. Nadres had them meet Aklan’s piña weavers, who eventually became part of a study tour in the Second Asean Traditional Textile Symposium in 2009.

“EN Barong Tagalog is a longtime vendor partner of HABI,” says HABI board member Mia Villanueva. “They represent a long tradition of embroidery and barong pieces.”

“HABI has been promoting our local weaves and weavers. It has helped in the sustainability of these cultural institutions,” says Nadres. “For us, it means a continuous supply of local materials.”

CHRONICLE OF FILIPINO WEAVE The book Garment of Honor, Garment Of Identity

Physical and online fairs with HABI allow the 60-year-old brand to showcase not only its staple barong Tagalog, but new products too. At Likhang HABI Kalayaan Online Fair, there’s “Divina,” a Cocoon Silk bolero whose butterfly sleeves add a touch of Filipiniana when worn with a jeans-and-sneakers ensemble. “Tanya” is a casual cotton blouse with an avant-garde shoulder accent made of handwoven Ilocos binacol. Handwoven binacol is also used on the collar and pockets of “Eric,” a casual short-sleeved polo shirt. 

Weavers and embroiderers of the barong Tagalog, a majority of whom are based in the province, clearly benefit from the online presence. Though EN Barong Tagalog continued to order and purchase fabrics from its suppliers during the pandemic (which were then delivered as soon as provincial borders reopened), the industry was among those affected by the stringent lockdowns.

“The barong Tagalog is meant for celebrations and gatherings of people and this has not been allowed since ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) was declared,” says Nadres. “Since government has allowed small gatherings and people have adjusted to being online, however, the use of the barong Tagalog is making a steady comeback.” 

Organized by a group engaged in the preservation, promotion, and enhancement of Philippine textiles through education, communication, and research, the recently opened virtual event Likhang HABI Kalayaan Online Fair, launched on Independence Day, runs until June 20.

As the barong Tagalog remains a symbol of Filipino tradition, it’s technology that’s helping keep it alive. “The goal is to put weavers and small businesses in touch with buyers and designers that may be looking for these artisan items,” says Villanueva of the HABI Fair, “especially in this time of pandemic where it is difficult to move around and back and forth through provinces, the online platform is ideal.”

“It will help us grow our presence online where most of the retail action is taking place,” acknowledges Nadres.