While the Barong Tagalog has yet to be named the “National Dress of the Philippines” with pending House Bill 3926 (“Philippine National Symbols Act of 2014”) in Congress, the native garment has long been considered the official male formal wear of Filipinos through history.
Solid proof to this is the support of numerous Philippine Presidents in promoting the Barong Tagalog, the latest of which has President Benigno Aquino 3rd commissioning his own couturier Paul Cabral to design one for each of the 21 world leaders presently in Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.
As the Cabral said in an interview, “Since the Philippines is the APEC host economy, it is fitting and appropriate for the Economic Leaders to wear the Barong Tagalog for such a significant event.”
The designer added that the symbolic attire can be seen as a gift not just from the President but from all Filipinos. “Our provision of formal wear for the world leaders is reflective of our renowned hospitality and conveys our people’s warm welcome.”
Before Aquino, former President Fidel Ramos also gifted heads of states with the Barong Tagalog during the country’s first hosting of the annual APEC Summit in 1996.
Meanwhile, an article written by Reinerio Alba for the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts, also documents the Barong Tagalog enjoying support from the following Philippine Presidents.
Alba wrote, “[The late president Ferdinand] Marcos issued a decree ordering government employees to wear Barong Tagalog to work. . . [and]Corazon Aquino, for her part, gave out loans for pineapple planting and the training of piña weavers in Aklan.”
Piña, a handwoven fabric made from pineapple fiber, is the most popular choice of material for the Barong Tagalog, while jusi and banana fabrics are also often used. What ultimately sets a particular Barong Tagalog apart from others, however, is the intricacy of its embroidery on the garment’s chest area.
For the 2015 APEC Summit, Cabral has designed each of the 21 Barong Tagalog to complement the culture of each visiting leader. Citing an example, the attire of Japan’s First Lady Akie Abe is inspired by the sakura (cherry blossoms), while Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s barong is embroidered with the Sarawk shield.
Now if Cabral is considered the premier Barong Tagalog designer in the country today, who invented the national attire to begin with?
While a specific name has never been documented in history books, what is certain was that the barong’s history could be traced as early as the 16th century during the Spanish colonization in the Philippines.
Back then, many historians wrote how the Spaniards “ordered” Filipinos—whether the Indios or the Ilustrados—to wear “a transparent and thin clothing, without tucking, to identify them as inferiors.” It was also said that the barong was design in such a way to prevent Filipinos from allegedly “steal[ing]” or “hid[ing]weapons” under their clothes. (filipiknow.net)
Eventually, Filipinos began “to exhibit passive-aggressive resistance against the Spanish during the later part of their rule by adding elegant designs to their Barong Tagalog.
“Pitted against the drab wear of the Spanish, the natives—especially the ilustrados,” continued filipiknow.net, “strutted around in their flamboyant Barongs in silent protest to the social order of the time.”
However, there are opponents of this theory who argue that there was never documented proof that validates such stories. filipiknow.net furthered, “With regards to the Barong’s transparency and the manner of wearing it untucked (sic), their contention is that the natives already designed their clothing with thin fabric and wore it untucked (sic) way before the Spanish arrived to better cope with the country’s tropical climate.”
Whichever is true between the two tales, the Barong Tagalog is proudly worn by Filipinos to important occasions then and now.
Meanwhile, Barongs R Us, an online marketplace offering Filipinos wide variety of fine Barong Tagalog for men, as well as Filipiniana dresses, lists additional highlights regarding the traditional garb below:
“During the 18th century, the handkerchief—usually made of colored silk and inspired with European cravat—was introduced as an accessory to the baro.
“Hand-woven embroidery on the chest of the baro was a European influence in the 19th century. Later on, the collar was modified to become ruffled and the baro started to be worn tucked under a European topcoat mostly by mestizos or Spanish Filipinos. The ordinary Filipino still wore their baro loose and over trousers.
“Different Barong Tagalog styles emerged after the Filipino Nationalists gained independence. The designs were more detailed and the collars and cuffs were ruffled. This type of Barong tagalog was popular until the 1920s.
“The popularly known Commonwealth Barong Tagalog designed with the Commonwealth and American flag, was worn by President Manuel Quezon during his November 15, 1935 inauguration.
“During the American era, Filipinos began wearing more of the American dresses and less of the Barong Tagalog. It was only during President Ramon Magsaysay’s time from 1955-1957 did the barong tagalog’s popularity re-surfaced as the president himself chose to wear them during his inauguration and in all other social functions, thereafter.
“From 1961-1964, during President Diosdado Macapagal’s term, the Barong Tagalog with all-over embroidery became a staple men’s wear on formal affairs.
“In 1975, President Ferdinand E. Marcos proclaimed the Barong Tagalog as the National Attire and announced June 5 to 11 as Barong Tagalog week.
“During the 1990’s, it was President Fidel V. Ramos who somewhat injected an informal twist to the Barong Tagalog by wearing them with folded long sleeves. Later on, former President Joseph Estrada would follow suit and be oftentimes seen with folded long sleeved Barong Tagalog.”