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Get Jiggy with the ‘Terno’


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.

In this space many years ago, I wrote about a TV station in Vienna 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 and 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 example, or Jose Rizal or even Lapu Lapu, the chief of Mactan, though I’ve read reports that he wasn’t so much being a hero when he stood up to Magellan, but was really being bitter and jealous and enraged to have been put under Humabon, the bigger guy if only because his was a bigger chiefdom—Cebu.

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 I were a foreigner, you would have declared me persona non grata, but well I am a Filipino, born and raised, so yes I have the right to call a spade a spade in this country.

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


And 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 a time long ago and far away, in tones of sepia or black and white, 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 along its fall/winter collection 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.

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 terno advocate and artistic director of Ternocon 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 last year that Heart Evangelista stirred like a flutter of butterfly wings causing a typhoon halfway around the world—to the grocery to buy corned beef.

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 and every way it can stay relevant.

Mobo 1

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.

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.

So chill! We can relax. And get jiggy with the terno.

Source: Manila Bulletin

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