The way we wore

Published August 5, 2022, 5:00 PM

by Manila Bulletin

How Maid in Malacañang has captured an era interrupted

By Eliza Romualdez-Valtos

Adding on to current knowledge is not revisionism. 

As an archaeologist/researcher, I see it as broadening our knowledge every time we are introduced to new data. Given the advancement of technology for analysis and the accessibility to a variety of social platforms to share new data, we have begun to hear stories of people who were what we call the invisibles of the past. 

These invisibles, as I call them, are subjects not talked about in our prehistoric and historic past because of religious or political structures that did not allow the acknowledgment of their existence or because the technology had not been invented yet to analyze the material evidence. Specialists turn to material evidence in the absence of written or oral recordings of people with firsthand knowledge.  

In the case of the film Maid in Malacañang, however, we have firsthand accounts of witnesses and protagonists who were present and are still living—those who have lived to tell their tale. The invisibles are finally beginning to speak up after decades of it being too unpopular to do so.

‘80S WEAR Wardrobe designs for the film by Joel MV Bilbao

I bawled my eyes out at the recent premiere of Maid in Malacañang. The film managed to breach the final barrier against waves of personal memories held at bay for close to 40 years. In the movie, I heard the strong voice of Senator Imee Romualdez Marcos, whose memories are the foundation of this movie, a recollection of the events that happened 72 hours before her family was forced into exile. Her memories fit like pieces of a puzzle with my own memories of those days, diligently written in my 1986 diary. 

In this movie, amid the drama, you will glean the dynamics of the Marcos family, the nuanced relationships between and among the family members—their strengths, insecurities, hopes, desires, and fears at the time. The director and screenwriter Darryl Yap was able to put into words and images what Imee could not cohesively explain publicly in one go.

PRESIDENTIAL FAMILY The cast of Maid in Malacañang poses for the film poster

Imee’s story is merely adding on to current knowledge. This is not revisionism or a malicious attempt to change history. It is merely Imee’s story, her father’s “darling genius of a girl,” and her experience through the eyes of the people who knew her, the staff (maids and members of the Presidential Security Command, the PSC, before they were renamed PSG by the late Cory Aquino) of the palace. 

I was first introduced to the project at a merienda attended by Darryl and his production crew at the home of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos in San Juan. I was invited, so I could help with costume research given that I spent months doing recovery and conservation work on all the old photographs and clothes of the late president Marcos and his wife, the family matriarch Imelda Romualdez Marcos. In that meeting, I met renowned costume designer Joel MV Bilbao. 

I was told two very important things. Number one: The ‘maids in Malacañang’ were all registered nurses and/or sundalos. Number two: They wore all white nurse-type uniforms, either with a skirt or pants. On very rare occasions during visits by international personalities, they would wear a black ensemble with a white apron.

I have always loved historical novels and films. I get so caught up in the costumes that I rewatch the film or series just to give the costumes my undivided attention. When I was told about Maid in Malacañang and my very miniscule role in it to provide photos and information from the people in the time the movie is set, I did underscore how important it was to be true to the way we wore as films immortalize and sear such images in our collective memory. Yes, people will know!

A BOY AND HIS BODYGUARD A young Borgy Manotoc, son of Senator Imee Marcos, with a PSC (presidential security command) in uniform

Seated beside Joel at the meeting I found him to be such a mild-mannered and gracious person. He graduated from my alma mater (where I completed my Master’s in Archaeology), the University of the Philippines. Joel started his career in the Department of Tourism as chief of the press office under the administration of President Marcos Sr. After 10 years in government service, he called it quits and his life in the movies began. In 1991, he worked on costumes for movies like Juan Tamad and Mr. Shooli sa Mongolian Barbecue while doing TV commercials. He soon ventured in period films like MarcovaBalerMulawinAsiong SalongaEl PresidenteBonifacio, and Luna. His work can be seen in Swedish, Spanish, and Italian films. At present, he has garnered three FAMAS awards, four Star Awards, a Film Academy Award, a Gawad Pasado, a Gawad Tanglaw award, and one Urian nomination.

The most basic of tasks I had to do was to provide photos of the maids and the PSC at Malacañan Palace, particularly during the last term of President Marcos before 1986. I consulted my older cousins and was told two very important things. Number one: The “maids in Malacañang” were all registered nurses and/or sundalos. Number two: They wore all white nurse-type uniforms, either with a skirt or with pants. On very rare occasions during visits by international personalities, they would wear a black ensemble with a white apron. So special shoutout to Marietta Manabot, who personally supervised the making of all the maids’ uniforms for the movie! The PSC, on the other hand, wore a gray-blue bush jacket type top with matching-colored pants. Sometimes, they wore the top with black pants. The rest would wear two types of combo uniforms, either long-sleeved barong with black pants for formal occasions and short-sleeved barongs with either blue gray pants or black pants.


What have I learned growing up in a family with a long terno-wearing tradition among its women? Avoid if at all wearing high-cut (high neck) terno with oversized sleeves. Big “no-no!” Also, it has been drilled in me to always wear my hair up when wearing the terno. I am sure one can deviate but for me, it has been written in our DNA by our family matriarch—the most famous terno wearer of all times!

In addition, months of salvaging ternos and barongs among other personal effects in a forgotten attic in the Marcos San Juan house have made me realize there is really a science to the terno sleeve. It truly is an architectural piece of art. Think church arches. I really hate seeing wilting terno sleeves on women. Now I know why they wilt. In one of my early archaeological digs in Batangas, I was tasked to dig up a trench that later revealed a buried church arch. I found out that one of the intact pieces I uncovered was the keystone. It is that piece at the very center top of the arch that keeps the arch up, way before steel was used in structures. This is the same for the terno sleeve. We will talk about the terno sleeve and the science behind it in a future article. Abangan!

HEAD OF THE MARCOSES Film depictions of President Ferdinand Marcos and Imelda Marcos as portrayed by Cesar Montano and Ruffa Guitierrez

On Maid in Malacañang, Joel collaborated with seasoned designers. One of the designers was Avel Bacudio, who replicated the red tunic and pants and the black and white checkered coat Imelda wore when they left Malacañang in 1986. The actress Ruffa Gutierrez, who played Imelda Marcos in the film, wore it on the set. The rest of the costumes in the film were designed by Joel, who says he was like a conductor in an orchestra, with the help of Marietta Manabat and Vivo Nazareth. The three made sure the job was done in 24 hours. The entire movie was filmed in 10 days. Joel said they had four days to create the costumes. It was no mean feat that demanded collaborative effort and patience.

Joel explained Imee’s wardrobe was heavily inspired by Madonna in the ‘80s—crop top and high-waist pants. I do remember interviews of Imee in the ‘80s acknowledging the seasoned singer and pop queen for her ability to keep reinventing herself, something Imee admitted she admired. The late president’s penchant for Fred Perry shirts and the Ilokano’s preference for anything plaid is featured as well. Since the movie is set during the last three days of the Marcoses in Malacañang, visual references show Bongbong in fatigues. According to Joel, he wanted to reinforce the bond Imee had with her father in the movie. He attempted to do this with the color white. At the same time, throughout the movie, he pushed the composite colors of the flag—red, white, and blue—in the costumes of the characters. 

IMELDIFIC Avel Bacudio’s sketch of Imelda’s red tunic pants for the film

What Joel did in the film was cinematic costuming of the era. “It is not the exact replica but a symbolic representation of it,” he said. He considers himself an artist called upon by destiny to recreate an era interrupted. 

In this day and age, everyone has a voice. We are now provided with the social platforms to shout ourselves hoarse or run our fingers to the bone in if we want to share our personal stories and experiences. We all have our own stories to tell. In democratic societies such as ours, no one can stop us from telling our stories, despite noise from cancelers and haters. Nowadays there are so many ways to get our voices heard, well, at least to anyone willing to listen.