All about clothes

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

AT the 6th Asean Traditional Textiles Symposium last week in Bandar Begawan, Brunei, the most interesting insights into indigenous fabrics and their uses in each country were highlighted and discussed.

One paper that interested me was that of Dr. Michael Howard of Simon Fraser University in Canada, a renowned textile expert of Southeast Asian fabrics.

Dr. Howard concentrated on male attire in Southeast Asia where the traditional attire from prehistory was no garment for the upper body and an abbreviated loin cloth or bark cloth for the lower body. With the interaction with more fully clothed people like conquerors, traders and religious proselytizers, a change occurred. Upper body garments entered as an overshirt, or a pullover, for males while still wearing the loin cloth. By the time of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and exports to Southeast Asia, more foreign fashions were introduced and one of them was a wraparound garment (from traded textiles) for men and women – malong to our local knowledge. This adapted garment became part of native attire and was produced in traditional native weaving in the countries concerned.

In time as the centuries advanced towards modernity and modern fashions, the upper body garments of Southeast Asians were adapted foreign or Western clothing, but the lower body kept to the traditional. Thus, one has the sarong all across the Indian Ocean. Trousers apparently came from Central Asian nomads and were introduced into Western China and adopted by both male and female. Trousers also were adopted by the Middle East, particularly the Parthians (Persians eventually). So, it may be said that fashion trends were moving around the world. Dr. Howard’s paper concentrated on Southeast Asia and mention was made of how Central Asia and Persian court clothing influenced some Southeast Asian nations. For example, the Thais were influenced by Persian court clothing which they translated into anti-feudal, no color, no ornaments and became like their court dress today— draped or wraparound pants (my description). This even became part of their military uniform in court.


Meanwhile the Vietnamese copied Chinese gowns in silk. Somewhere along the way, the Philippines turned the initial overshirt into the barong tagalog, untucked as the overshirt was, but with embroidery and in native materials like piña or cotton (native to the Philippines).

Myanmar has entered the modern age with its traditional garments intact as they are not impractical but beautiful expressions of their environment and culture.

Female attire remained grounded in the traditional as Southeast Asian males in time adopted Western suits. Note the Vietnamese and Laotians in photographs with their women in traditional dress and the men in suits. This is the scene from the 20th century and on the state of dress in these parts.

Now let us fast-forward to the Asean and APEC conferences that Southeast Asian and Pacific Rim countries hold every few years in the post post-World War 2 era. Traditionally in these conferences a group photograph is taken of the heads of state and government in attendance wearing the host country’s traditional attire.

Naturally, in the Philippines it is the barong tagalog which, “itchy” or “scratchy” as the media reported the New Zealand prime minister to have commented, is generally known as Filipino around the world and with few such comments.

When Vietnam hosted, they had the group photo with the participants in the silk gowns. Thailand had Thai silk shirts, China had silk shirts (like the current Chinese ambassador to the Philippines always wears). All with their unique silk designs and traditional colors. Peru had ponchos in wool, Chile had colorful woolen blankets over whatever was worn. Another time around, Peru produced long woolen scarves to place over the shoulders of the persons photographed. All traditional woven fabrics from their countries. Canada had the participants in leather bomber jackets. To each their own idea of what is familiar, traditional, environmental, etc.

Here is where the fun begins for the Western press. With no attempt to figure out how these items were adapted by the people concerned as they adjusted to their environments, i.e. hot or cold, materials available, crafts acquired, etc. their first move is to make it a comical image as some of the people being photographed grapple with what they are unaccustomed to putting on. In the end, it becomes a comedy of errors as reported by the media.

It sometimes seems they are just waiting for the moment, have gathered all the critical adjectives to put together and now even eliciting somewhat negative comments from the ones photographed in these outfits. I for one doubt if the New Zealand Prime Minister meant to be negative about her barong dress. She probably had some positive points which were ignored for the more critical comments. That is the sensational news the media loves to put out and wait for more equally negative reactions. Their fun at the expense of everyone involved.

Every country has its trip to modernity. Each one’s trip should be understood from where it begins, how it evolves, and what are the factors in play. Then one can understand and appreciate what it is today, how it lives. And perhaps if so, there could be more educated and knowledgeable viewpoints, comments and reactions to take.

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