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Philippines Dressing Culture and Customs Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 9th, 2020

The Republic of the Philippines is located about 400 miles from Asia. The country borders South China Sea to the North and West, the Sulu Sea and Celebs Sea to the southwest, and the Philippines Sea to the east. Arguably, four cultural influences and three key religions are responsible for what the Philippines are today. Ethnic groups in the Philippines include Apayao, Bagobo, Bontoc, Boholano, Mandaya, Manobo, and Kalinga to name but a few.

The national language in the Philippines is Filipino and English is used as the official language. The main regional languages include Bicolano, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Kapampangan, Maguindanao, Tagalog, and Waray. Close to 83 percent of the population are Roman Catholics while 9 percent are Protestants. The Muslims comprise 5 percent while the remaining 3 percent consists of Buddhists, Taoists, animists, and others.

This paper looks at the dressing culture of the Filipinos and how it was influenced by Western countries such as Spain and the United States as well as its neighbors. As a result of Western influence, most Filipinos have lost touch with their original mode of dressing and only wear their traditional clothes during special occasions.

Historically, the Republic of the Philippines was colonized by Spain and the United States. In addition, the country had contacts with many of its Asian neighbors such as Thailand. For this reason, the country’s culture is mostly regarded as a blend of different cultures. Despite the Western influence, the Republic of the Philippines managed to preserve some of its unique dressing cultures through minority groups.

To a large extent, the dressing culture of the Filipinos was influenced by Spain and the United States. Apparently, the media and the country’s tropical climate also influenced the Filipinos dressing culture. The country’s tropical climate compelled Filipinos to put on colorful clothes that were often mixed with bead work. Before Spain colonized the Philippines, it is alleged that the Filipinos used the canga1 as well as the bahag2 as part of their dressing.

The canga was some form of a collarless shirt used quite extensively by men. As a result of external influence some Filipino women started wearing coats that had initially been reserved for use in their kitchens (Toer 35). The tropical climate in the Philippines compelled most Filipinos to put on light shirts with jeans or maong as they are generally referred to in the Republic of the Philippines. For similar reasons, women preferred the use of skirts and blouses.

The extensive adoption of the Western dressing culture is linked to the fact that Filipinos easily integrated the new way of dressing into their daily lives and continued doing so for a long time. As a consequence, the traditional mode of dressing in the Philippines was quickly replaced by international fashion. This was further reinforced by the fact that the Western dressing style was widely accepted by top government officials in the Philippines (Rizal 33).

The terno, a traditional dress commonly worn by women, for example, lost its fame as most women shifted their interest to contemporary clothing from the Western world. On the contrary, the barong tagalong3, a loose-fitting shirt for men retained its popularity among Filipino men.

Apparently, the barong tagalong survived because it could easily be integrated with the modern dressing style. Many people in the Philippines today tend to imitate Americans in the way they dress because of the Western influence. However, this is with the exception of the minorities who chose to retain their traditional dressing mode.

During the American era, the Filipinos’ mestiza4 gown slowly evolved into the terno. Seemingly, the modern day terno resulted from an older union of some form of a European skirt that was referred to as the saya5. The saya was combined with a pre-Hispanic sarong-style dress known as the tapis6. The tapis was used mainly as an overlapping attachment much like an apron.

It was wrapped around the waist. Most women in the Philippines did not like the tapis because it was associated with aprons. In order to retain their dignity, Filipino women wore a blouse referred to as camisa or baro so as to conceal the upper section of their bodies. Ordinarily, the blouse would be covered with an embroidered piece of cloth.

The influence of Spaniards led to the development of the Maria Clara dress that combined the unique features of the camisa and panuelo7 as well as the saya. During the period when the Republic of the Philippines was under the American reign, the camisa and the saya became matched in both material and color. In addition, the tapis was quickly replaced by a smaller piece known as the sobrefalda. As a result of the American influence on the Filipinos, the butterfly sleeves came into existence and were added to the camisa.

Americans further reinforced this by putting a lot of emphasis on the use of domestic clothes. Debatably, this was part of the American’s plan to help the country to become self sufficient. One of the most common fabrics in the Philippines was pina8. The pina was manufactured using pineapple and jusi9 which was a mixture of banana fabric known as abaca and silk obtained from the Chinese republic.

Presumably, the greatest revolution of the Filipino’s dress came as a result of uniting the blouse and the skirt to create the terno. The innovation took place in the 1940’s and was quickly accepted by most professional women in the Philippines who wanted to do away with cumbersome dressings used in past regimes.

As pointed out earlier, minority groups in the Philippines fought so hard to preserve their traditional dressing. Subsequently, they came up with their own traditional clothes that were used by both men and women. The clothes came in varied forms and were mostly associated with specific places in the Philippines.

With more than three dozen major ethnic minorities scattered across the Philippines, nearly 10 per cent of the population was considered to belong to cultural minorities. It has been said that the various ethnic minorities did not seem to fit into the project of creating a national consciousness based on a shared heritage. Consequently, a special place had to be created for them. The differences between the minorities and the rest of the Filipinos have almost resulted in their being regarded as non-Filipinos.

In general, minorities in the Philippines are people who successfully resisted assimilation into the Spanish and American cultures. As a result, they maintained their own cultures and refused to be tainted by foreign contact. They thus kept their epics, songs, dances, and mode of dressing. Their fellow Filipinos on the other hand were assimilated into a new way of life and consequently lost much of their culture.

Whereas the culture of the assimilated Filipinos evolved into a hybrid of indigenous and foreign elements, that of minority groups remained almost intact. For most people, the minority tribes were backward in comparison to other Filipinos. Some Filipinos, however, argue that minority tribes in the Philippines represented a critical link to their past. For the Mandaya and other ethnic groups residing on the Mindanao Island, the dress used was very colorful and quite elaborate.

However, it is alleged that minority groups in the Philippines used Western clothes almost every single day and only wore traditional clothes during special events. Since the American period, lowland Christians have been wearing different Western clothes including casual wear. Generally, Western clothes are preferred since they offer great comfort in the tropical climate.

To an extent, the culture of the Filipinos also had an impact on some foreigners. Debatably, the explanation for this lies in the environmental and climatic basis for the Philippine cuisine which apparently is quite resilient to the adaptation of foods to native taste. Nonetheless, specific modes of dressing are not as fundamental to the daily existence of Filipinos in comparison to food.

Among the clothes introduced into the Philippines include the coat or suit commonly referred to as Americana by the Filipinos. Worn with a tie and used during formal events, the Americana was brought into the Philippines by the Americans. The Spaniards on the other hand introduced clothes that were mainly made of silk material.

As has been explained in this paper, the dressing culture of the Filipinos was largely influenced by its colonizers and especially by Spain and the United States. However, it was also influenced to some extent by the media and the country’s tropical climate.

Although the Filipinos tried to indigenize the dressing culture of foreigners, not much was achieved. By and large, the dressing culture of the Filipinos is a mixture of different cultures brought into the country by foreign nations that colonized it. It also includes some features of neighboring countries.

Works Cited

Rizal, José. Noli Me Tangere. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. Print.

Toer, Pramoedya Ananta. This Earth of Mankind. New York City: Penguin Group, 1996. Print.


1 Form of a collarless shirt

2 Unique type of cloth used by the Filipinos

3 Embroidered lightweight shirt used in the Philippines

4 Individuals of mixed Filipino and foreign ancestry

5 Official national dress of the Filipinos

6 Wrap-around skirt

7 Some form of a scarf

8 Fiber made from pineapple leaves

9 Woven silk fabric

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