An integral part of the Filipino fashion identity, the terno reflects the times.
We have been modernizing the terno, the Filipiniana dress, since 19th century aristocrats were still referring to it as the traje de mestiza.
In 1939, Ramón Valera liberated women from society’s expectations of modesty by removing the panuelo, which is a small cloth usually folded into a triangle. He turned the four-piece ensemble into a one-piece dress that could be zipped up.
Then came Salvacion Lim Higgins, a woman designing for women, who gave the ladies the leg room to match their longer strides: the bouffant shape of creations was her answer to Christian Dior’s “New Look” in the late 1940s. She was a visionary in the way she referenced the past and designed for the future.
Now that clothing design is recognized as an art form, today’s designers are tasked with something more down-to-earth, perennial, but no less daunting: modernizing the terno for every day.
“The terno was everyday-wear. It had more casual, daytime versions,” reminds scenographer Gino Gonzales, the brain behind Ternocon, the terno-making convention and event held bi-annually by the retail giant Bench. “By the latter part of the 20th century, these casual versions disappeared.”
The world was shaken by two World Wars, the Spanish flu pandemic, and nuclear war. In the Philippines, we contended with Martial Law and the economic contraction and debt that followed. Suddenly, many weren’t so proud to be Filipino.
On the other hand, Hollywood gave the nation all the escapism we sought. For years, the terno just didn’t resonate beyond being a costume for Linggo ng Wika and Independence Day, or as a formal dress code for the elite.
According to Mark Higgins, director at Slim’s Fashion & Arts School, it was inevitable that the economic slowdown— and its eventual and well-earned rise in the mid- to late-2010s—would show in our clothes.
“With this comes a renewed confidence and pride in a sense of Filipino identity. This is in part a reaction to the world becoming more global, hence the desire to determine what makes us unique from others around us,” he says. “It is important to remember that fashion is always a barometer of a country and its people.”
No piece of clothing makes you stand taller and sit up straighter the way the terno can. The shape, size, and placement of the sleeves make you pull your shoulders back and elongate your neck.
Today, you can’t dine in the hippest restaurant in town or scroll through your feed without spotting a Vania Romoff camisa, the blouse with over 300 waitlisted names as of press time.
The terno has become mainstream once again, and there is no denying Ternocon’s contributions to that.
“The terno sleeve already went through an evolution which actually tells its own fashion history, and it is what makes the Philippine national dress so distinct,” Higgins explains. “All that is left of it is simply the sleeve, because the garment went through so many ‘subtractions.’ I feel whatever designers do, the sleeve needs to remain looking the way it does.”
By the end of 2019, the internet could tell a leg of mutton and puff sleeve apart from the dignified butterfly sleeve.
Gonzales notes, “Ternocon also helped designers recalibrate the Philippine dress for more casual occasions. By doing that, we now find the terno outside of very formal occasions.”
Hannah Adrias won the 2020 competition with a military-themed collection, complete with utility harnesses that wrapped around the waist like the knots of a tapis, and cargo pants and an oversized tee with the flowiness of a saya and camisa.
Jaggy Glarino, Abdul Dianalan, and Gavin Ruffy all created sculptural cocktail- ready pieces which take off from the sleeves’ structure. Contestants like Dinnes Obusan also explored the possibilities of what the terno can be fashioned from as he transformed neoprene scraps into fringe, twisting each piece by hand. Jean Dee and Toping Zamora worked with indigenous textiles like piña or abaca. For the newer ternos, Gonzales notes the growing use of softer inabel cloth made with locally-grown cotton, instead of polyester threads that make it stiff. “That is a huge step, because we see an integration of artisanal crafts, agriculture, and contemporary design.” As for techniques, Gonzales says he would love to see some intelligent stylization of the terno such as the tapis (worn around the waist) or the alampay (worn on the neck or shoulders). “Pepito Albert has done incredible contemporary versions of the pañuelo,” he adds. “I hope the younger generation of designers can offer their own.” Later, he muses on the direction of Philippine fashion at large. “The Philippine dress should also reflect the times, if we want it to remain relevant.”
Over the last two years of lockdowns and sheltering for safety, the formal and cocktail terno can’t be further away from daydreams of simpler, bucolic days not unlike an Amorsolo painting, where all the women wear balintawak, which is made of local fibers. Call it the tropical equivalent to the West’s cottagecore: “The balintawak reflects this reconnection with nature, rural life, and a less hurried pace.”
The balintawak—a relaxed and casual version of the terno that is worn in rural areas—is the focus for the third edition of Ternocon, and a first look at what modern terno is becoming: a form of wearable heritage.
Makeup: Gela Laurel. Hair: Mong Amado. Models: Siobhan Moylan, Raejell Roxas. Nails: Posh Nails. Production Designer: Princess Barretto. Producer: Anz Hizon. Photographer’s Assistant and Retoucher: Caci Juchat
A version of this article appeared in Vogue Philippines’ September 2022 issue.