Weaving a nation

October 25, 2017

Yesterday marked the start of the National Museum’s international traveling exhibit, “Hibla ng Lahing Filipino,” in London with major support from Sen. Loren Legarda. That announcement, and a trip to the 7th Habi exhibit and sale of local handwoven textiles, got me thinking about how our textile and clothing industries have gone through many rough periods, and is still faltering today. This is a real shame when you consider that there’s a fashionista in every Filipino.

The Boxer Codex, a 16th century Spanish collection of travel accounts by Spanish and Portuguese chroniclers in Asia, includes texts and lavish illustrations of what our ancestors looked like. Here’s just one description of the fashionista indio: “The garments and dresses of Bisayan women consist of some blankets with diverse colored stripes made of cotton… they wear a pezuelo (a chemise)… that are fastened at the front with braids or cords of silk. Many wear a lot of gold jewelry that they use as fasteners and small golden chains, which they use as best as they can.”

In the 18th and 19th century, Panay had a flourishing weaving industry and Iloilo developed into a “textile capital” with cotton, sinamay, silk and the exquisite piña, woven from pineapple fibers. Alas, the industrial revolution in England resulted in mass produced cheap textiles that flooded the world’s markets, including our own, practically wiping out Panay’s native weaving.

Fortunately, some of the weaving traditions did survive in Panay and in other parts of the country. I should say they barely survived, in part because Filipinos were taking up imported textiles rapidly and were also abandoning local clothing, now referred to as quaint “costumes.”

Local textiles and fashions fared better among our Moro and indigenous communities, with their greater resistance to colonialism. Handwoven textile traditions survived because people continued to produce their own textiles and clothing, utilizing their own looms, natural dyes, designs and, most importantly, raw materials.

Older Filipinos will recall that we did try to mass produce textiles. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had a number of local firms, many Chinese-Filipino owned, that had factories producing these textiles.

Again, the local textiles — whether mass produced or artisanal—lost out to the world as cheap ready-to-wear (RTW) garments were dumped into the Philippines. There was a time when the Philippines itself became a center for producing these RTWs with multinational brands but our already cheap labor could not match even cheaper labor in other countries. Capitalism moves to wherever labor is cheapest: Look at your closet and you’ll find it’s a mini United Nations — clothes made in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Guatemala. And our shopping centers are full of garments from Thailand and China.

Add on the ukay-ukay, used clothing from overseas, and there seems to be almost no future for locally-produced apparel and textiles.

‘Baro’, barong

The history of textiles and clothing in the Philippines does tell us a lot about our own sense of identity and nationhood. While we loved dressing up, we never quite thought of local traditions and products as being of high quality, worth protecting, developing and promoting.

The textiles and clothing history also tells us something about our conflicted feelings around nationalism, further complicated by other unresolved issues around class and ethnicity. Take the barong (from baro, clothes) as an example, which we still often refer to as the barong Tagalog, even as we try to make it national attire.

It took president Ramon Magsaysay, a man of humble origins, to give the barong its current prestige but we still have a long way to go. I’m still learning to decipher invitations to events that say “formal wear” with me ending up wandering in wearing a barong and almost everyone else in tuxedo or coat and tie. I sense that for Filipino functions, “formal” is still coat and tie while, ironically, the norm with invitations from foreigners, including embassies, is to include the barong as “formal” (sometimes with their diplomatic corps wearing the barong as well).
Yet we can over-do things with strict rules around the barong. My protocol advisers in UP are always reminding me not to wear jeans with the barong (not even black denims), not to fold up the sleeves like Digong does, and and to button all the way up to the neck. I argue back, but I was a dog in a previous life, kept on a collar and chain, which is why in this life I avoid the coat and tie. Call it a protest, call it learned helplessness, I never learned to tie a necktie.

I’m not through yet with the conundrums of our barong. There are class distinctions written all over the barong. Note that if you’re of high status and your barong has wrinkles, people say it’s “gusot mayaman” (wrinkles of the rich). Note though that if you’re a security guard and wears a polo barong that’s not ironed, you could be scolded.
The polo barong is another story, an almost lame attempt at being more nationalistic with our clothing. If you’re in a semi-formal reception and decide to wear a polo barong, be careful because some snooty matron might call out to you and command: “Waiter, water.”

I’ve had running battles with UP’s security guard agencies that are afraid to accede to my request to have guards in polo barong, which I feel is more practical, more comfortable, and safer for the guards than their tight uniforms. The agencies point out that an old law governing security guards, dating back to the 1960s, requires those uniforms. Most telling, the agencies say that people are not afraid of guards in polo barong. On the contrary, I argue, if you have well-designed polo barongs, with proper “guard identification”, they can have a different aura of authority compared with the uniforms, which people actually don’t respect.

I’m not talking about guards decked out in piña polo barongs, but there are producers such as those clustered around Taal who supply machine-embroidered but still well-designed polo barong. The guards wearing them do have a different demeanor, proud of who they are.

The nationalism and development of barong Filipino has its very practical side. We need to create spaces for an entire line of Filipino products: from textiles to the apparel itself and its accessories. It has to be a line that taps local materials and designs to give it added value for local as well as international markets.
Successful business models are about tapping into an existing demand, adding value and creating new niches in the market. Clothes are second skin and in developing a local textile and clothing industry, we weave a greater sense of being Filipino.

Source: Inquirer