State of the Nation’s Dress: Fashion from President Duterte’s past SONAs

Published July 24, 2021, 8:00 PM

by John Legaspi

What President Duterte’s previous SONAs say about the way we wear

Is there room for fashion in politics? Yes. As much as we want to see a government that is fair and free from any signs of luxury, style infiltrating the Malacañang Palace is pretty inevitable, especially in today’s visual-heavy, content-hungry world. Even in other countries, fashion plays a significant role in governance. It signals new leadership (think of US Vice President Kamala Harris’ Pyer Moss coat) and social status (Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Need I say more?).

In the Philippines, fashion in politics is best presented during the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA). It is when the country’s leaders gather at the Batasang Pambansa to listen to the President’s report about the country, all dressed in their finest barongs and Filipiniana. 

While the country is all ears on the President’s speech, all eyes are on the red carpet first. As the current President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, is about to make his final SONA on July 26, 2021, let’s look back on how his past SONAs affected the way we see and wear our traditional clothing today.

2016: All about business

SONA FASHION 2016 From left: Gretchen Barretto with Tony Boy Cojuangco, Heart Evangelista, Tootsie Angara with husband Senator Sonny Angara, and Marga Nograles

It was Duterte’s first time on the podium and the SONA took a different turn in terms of the dress code, shifting from ultra-glamorous dressing to a refined, corporate look. This style make-under somewhat mirrored the President’s approach to his term, direct and all business. There were no long skirts sweeping the carpet or big jewels to feast our eyes on. While it might be seen as the one of the dullest SONA red carpets in years, it was among the first few times that we saw how traditional Filipino wear could be incorporated into everyday dressing. Knee-length dresses just like what Heart Evangelista (in Ivar Aseron) and Tootsy Angara (in Rajo Laurel) wore gave the terno a young and contemporary feel. Batangas representative Vilma Santos’ barong-inspired garb and Gretchen Barreto’s Inno Sotto look provided new ideas for corporate wear.

2017: Spotlighting indigenous tapestry 

SONA FASHION 2017 From left: Former DOT Secretary Wanda Teo, former Buluan Vice Mayor Toto Mangudadato, Senator Pia Cayetano, Senator Loren Legarda, and DOJ undersecretary Emmeline Aglipay Villar with husband DPWH Secretary Mark Villar

The understated dress code continued in 2017’s SONA where politicians and other attendees wore simple yet elegant ensembles. While they shed the extravagance and high-society formality that would ordinarily come with formal Filipiniana, attendees wore culture on their sleeves. Creations made of indigenous textiles paraded in the afternoon making a vibrant red carpet. The terrorist crisis in Marawi also started in 2017. Many showed solidarity by wearing creations incorporating Mindanaoan heritage, from Emmeline Villar’s Rhett Eala T’boli-inspired look to Sen. Loren Legarda’s handwoven Maranao malong.

While they shed the extravagance and high-society formality that would ordinarily come with formal Filipiniana, attendees wore culture on their sleeves.

2018: Where old meets new

SONA FASHION 2018 From left: Congresswoman Len Alonte, Baste Duterte and Darrela Kate Necessarion, Heart Evangelista, Audrey Zubiri with husband former Senator Migz Zubiri, Senator Nancy Binay, and Jinkee Pacquiao

The terno, barong, and other Filipiniana outfits breathed in new aesthetics, with the help of designers on the rise. Fashion designers like Mark Bumgarner and Michael Leyva reimagined the terno with romantic folds, cuts, and drapery. Seasoned designers such as Rajo Laurel, Cary Santiago (who dressed the majority of the Duterte family), and the late Ito Curata remained true to the classic Filipiniana vision with dresses made from local fibers. Soft ivory, delicate white, and sweet pastels dominated SONA 2018 and Sen. Nancy Binay in a pale blue number was the talk of the town. The year was truly a sophisticated moment for the SONA and its attendees.

2019: Making statements 

SONA FASHION 2019: Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, ACT Rep. France Castro, Senator Imee Marcos, Gabriela partylist Rep. Arlene Brosas, Vice President Leni Robredo with her daughters, and members of the Kabataan Partylist

In giving the Filipino classic wear a new spin and showcasing local textiles, the attendees did not disappoint in 2019. Even the rostrum of the House Session Hall was dressed in ethnic weave, as if it was the code for the afternoon agenda. The red carpet of President Durterte’s fourth SONA became a runway full of rebellion and patriotic or political statements. Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate wore a handpainted barong by Ma. Sol Taule that referenced the conflict on the West Philippine Sea. Echoing the same theme was Kabataan Rep. Sarah Jane Elago in a blue terno with a sash that represented the youth’s commitment to fighting for Philippine sovereignty. The highlight of the afternoon was Sen. Imee Marcos in a sunset ombre sleeveless gown by Mak Tumang. She explained why she was wearing yellow: “Sobrang sawa na ako sa bangayan ng pula at dilaw. Dapat magka-isa na tayong Pilipino.”

2020: The Araw Brooch

SONA FASHION 2020 From left: Senator Pia Cayetano, Congresswoman Lani Cayetano, Congresswoman Vilma Santos Recto, Congresswoman Sharon Garin, Congresswoman Stella Quimbo, and Congresswoman Ging Suansing

As the country was under the gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SONA 2020 eliminated its yearly red carpet in observance of health safety protocols. New normal SONA looks were instead presented on social media. As for its dress code, female politicians also made history by uniting to support Philipine culture, fashion, and spirit by wearing a piece of artisan work, the “Araw” brooch. Derived from the sun icon in the Philippine flag, Philippine Fashion Coalition’s (PFC) brooch symbolizes Filipino confidence, wisdom, stability, and unity while facing major challenges. It is done in the coalition’s dark blue coloration reflecting and representing the deep waters surrounding thousands of Philippine islands. It also features the inabel fabric incorporated into the eight rays of the sun.

“This Covid-19 crisis has had a continuing and severe effect on the people whose lives depend on work that is related to the fashion industry,” said the PFC. “We partnered with the respected women of the House of Representatives to shed light on our plight, and bring to the fore our aim to be the business support organization for all of Philippine fashion’s subsectors.”