Get jiggy with the terno

Published May 20, 2022, 6:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

We’re happy Ternocon is back this year—and here’s a little nudge of inspiration for the 12 finalists who will be chosen to give new oomph to the national dress

PARU-PARUNG BUKID This year’s competition focuses on the balintawak, the country version of the terno comprised of the camisa or butterfly sleeves and a saya or skirt. (Cover art: Fernando Amorsolo’s Seated Woman with a Bashful Smile, 1928; cover design by Jules Vivas)

Much ado about the terno, but I suppose it deserves the fuss, just like much of our history. While I do agree that history must be afforded respect, I also don’t see why it should not be seen through modern lens.

While in Vienna many years ago, I chanced upon a TV station that played the classics 24/7 and between, say, the finale of Eugene Onegin and the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene of La Bayadère, there would be snippets making fun of many of our classical heroes and pop culture gods, whether Bach or the Beatles, whether Maria Callas or Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

It was the irreverence that drew me in. I don’t know about you, but it’s like we tiptoe around objects or people or events to which we accord some national importance, the Philippine flag, for instance, or Jose Rizal.

So now, we’re talking much about the terno, the national dress, the dress by which the world came to know Imelda Marcos, that beautiful, always impeccably dressed woman from “…which country again, ah, the Philippines, but where is the Philippines exactly?” If you don’t know the Philippines, your loss, but I digress.

TERNO ON YOUTH Balay na Tisa Collection

Imelda is not why the terno is perhaps the most important article of clothing in this country, although in a terno, every woman may look Imeldific. The sleeves, like butterfly wings, do make her soar above the crowd, back straight, chin up, shoulders bold, best foot forward.

But then it got old, worn only at barrio fiestas or at costume parties or at school during Linggo ng Wika. I don’t know why, as the world opened up, no one thought of the terno, despite its rich history, all those old photos of our ancestors, in sepia or faded B&W, looking intensely at the camera, no smile, no smice, because the making of these photographs as well as dressing up was back then a serious affair.

I think Chanel beat us to it when the butterfly sleeves so closely associated with the Philippine terno fluttered down the runway at Paris Fashion Week in 2008. But now we’re making up for lost time, so some purists are aghast, offended, exasperated: “You are mocking the terno of my memories!”

No one really owns the terno, no one person, definitely not Imelda, contrary to what Bb. Pilipinas-Universe Maxine Medina said when she represented the Philippines in the Miss Universe pageant in 2017.

Krizna Tan, Davao, 2018

But trust Imelda to own what she doesn’t. She was clever to have used it as her official dress as first lady, as her signature look, as her fashion statement, and while she traipsed around the world trying to impress everybody, she was clever to have worn it as a symbol of her desire to be on equal footing with the European royals, the monarchs of the Middle East, the political elites and the celebrities of North America, the rulers of Asia. Love her or hate her, but she did turn heads and take wing, like a butterfly in the room.

So did those women in the old black-and-whites, unearthed by Ternocon artistic director Gino Gonzales from as far back as 1910, all those photos creased and yellowed by time, from eras in which the Filipina was Maria Clara, as untouchable, maybe as incorruptible, as some purists would keep the terno, if they could have their way, like a sacred garment encased in glass in the museum of our stale memories.

“The top of the sleeves should not reach the chin,” so lament the purists. “The bottoms should not go beyond the elbow. And teacup-sized terno sleeves are a no-no.”

That’s fine. There are ternos. And there are dresses or tops that are terno-inspired. And then there are those that are no more than a suggestion of a terno. To me, at least, all are a celebration of the terno, a revival of the terno, an acknowledgment of the undying appeal of such a beautiful piece of clothing. It’s a kid chancing upon a baul of her lola’s party clothes and trying to see how she can wear them to a club or to brunch with friends or—to borrow a viral commotion the year before the pandemic that Heart Evangelista stirred like a flutter of butterfly wings causing a typhoon halfway around the world—to the grocery to buy corned beef.

Joey Samson, 2020

So yes play with the terno, play it up, jazz it up, have fun in it. It’s not a religious vestment, so we can even joke about it. What’s important is to keep it alive and to keep people interested and, more important, to explore its many possibilities.

Hate jusi, or piña or madras cloth, the traditional fabrics used in a terno, let the kids try it on any fabric they like—satin or Chantilly lace, gazar, crinoline, maybe even neoprene.

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. —Lesley Mobo

Don’t make the terno off-limits to girls who have legs to show or who want it to look sexy or androgynous or geometric or teeny-tiny like a microshirt or in blinding, offensive, in-your-face neon.

In 2018, “Love Local” champion Ben Chan, who brings the Philippines to the world and the world to the Philippines, launched the Ternocon or the Terno Convention and Competition, the primary goals of which are “to initiate a dialogue about the Philippine national dress, to inspire and motivate emerging designers to create ternos, and to encourage the use of the terno as a popular form of formal dress.” It’s a serious endeavor, both inspirational and instructional, with no less than top designers like JC Buendia, Len Cabili, and Cary Santiago (2018) and Ivarluski Aseron, Lesley Mobo, Philip Rodriguez (2020), under the direction of Inno Sotto, providing mentorship for our young designers from Luzon to Mindanao.

Hannah Adrias, Pasay, 2020

Ternocon is back this year. Its third edition kicked off in April with a series of lectures on Zoom on topics like “The Balintawak: Evolution, Context, and Components,” “A Designer’s Creative Process,” “Filipinas Who Wear the Terno,” and “Wearing One’s Heart on One’s Sleeve,” delivered by artists and experts in design and history, such as Gino Gonzales, historian Isidra Reyes, Lesley Mobo, and historian Felice Sta. Maria, as well as Inno Sotto, who shared an inspiring message for this year’s participants, out of whom the 12 finalists will emerge sometime in July.

This third edition’s aim is to play up the terno or balintawak as a popular form of dress and breathe new life to it.

Historic as it is, the terno can be made to suit your individual style. So chill and get jiggy with it.

Cover art by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and Bench