Arts & Culture

Can the Baro't Saya Ever Return as an Everyday Filipino Fashion Staple?

Throughout history, the dress has mirrored our culture’s attitudes and ideals toward women.
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Is it possible for the baro’t saya, which is made from piña, to take on a modern twist and become an everyday women’s fashion piece? Balik Saya is a project headed by the Department of Tourism with hopes to modernize the baro’t saya to serve as a piece of culture women can wear that represents the evolution, attitude, and demure of the Filipina.

To many individuals, Maria Clara is both the idealization of the Filipino woman and the dress she wears. Her name is firmly entrenched in Filipino culture as the muse of Crisostomo Ibarra. She's widely portrayed as a sophisticated woman whose gentle nature belies a passionate heart. Her name has also become synonymous with the baro’t saya, which delicate structure reflects the spirit of her character.

Lately, however, the dress isn't enjoying the popularity it once had. Once the formalwear of choice among Filipino women, the Maria Clara has taken a backseat to more contemporary styles, and now it’s often seen in museums rather than on people. Balik Saya, a competition to redesign the baro’t saya with today’s fashion sensibilities in mind, aims to reinvigorate interest in the Philippines’ national dress.

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Balik Saya is a project of the Department of Tourism and the Intramuros Administration, with the support of Manila’s 5th District Representative, Cristal Bagatsing. Fifteen designers—students, residents, and professionals from the 5th District of Manila—were given the chance to modernize the baro’t saya under the guidance of designer Jojie Lloren, whose extensive experience with the garment made him a natural fit to be their mentor.

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“The baro’t saya, the traje de mestiza, is more reflective of a Filipina’s kahinhinan (demureness) and charm. It defines the femininity of the Filipina,” says Lloren.

“This time,” he adds, “We want it modernized. We want to see some innovations. There are no hard rules on that, except that the finished garment should look like and be identified as a traje de mestiza.”

A modern take on the baro’t saya, however, entails defining today’s Filipina. Throughout history, the dress has mirrored our culture’s attitudes and ideas towards women. As society’s view of Filipina evolved, so too, did the baro’t saya.

On Equal Footing

The baro’t saya can be traced as far back as before the 16th century, in illustrations found inside the Boxer Codex, a manuscript believed to have been owned by the son of then-Governor General of the Philippines, Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas. The drawings depict women in long-sleeved shirts (prototypical baros) embroidered with golden embellishments to display high status, worn over wrap-around skirts (sayas) made of the same, presumably lightweight, material. The tops, in particular, appeared remarkably similar to the ones worn by men.

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Illustrations of prototypical baro’t sayas from the Boxer Codex.

It was only during the Spanish occupation—in the early days of which the Spaniards balked at the equal status women enjoyed with men—that the baro became significantly distinct from the barong.

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Elegant, Conservative, and Demure

Throughout the 16th to 19th century, Christian standards of modesty and European fashion trends would shape the baro’t saya to the four-piece ensemble we know today: a camisa (the baro), a wider-skirted saya, a panuelo, and a tapis. The camisa, in particular, saw a dramatic transformation, shifting from the then-traditional sleeve to wider, bell-shaped pagoda sleeves. The material of choice, which early illustrations suggested were opaque, became sheer pina. And while the embroidery was already a feature in early baros of Philippine nobility, women of status saw the embellishments of their trajes des mestizas (mestizas’ dresses) grow more and more elaborate.

The panuelo—a square piece of fabric folded into a triangle and worn like a shawl—was added to the dress to compensate for the camisa’s relatively low neckline, while the tapis was worn as an overskirt to prevent the lower torso from being exposed underneath the baro’t saya’s sheer material.

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It was during this period that the dress came to be known as the Maria Clara, named after the female protagonist in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Like the character in the book, the dress represented the ideal Filipina of the time: elegant, conservative, and demure. The dress continues to be associated with the name and the character to this day.

A “Modern” Woman

Shortly after colonial rule shifted from the Spanish to the Americans, the Maria Clara became more daring. Sleeves were shortened, silhouettes became slimmer, and the panuelo became more relaxed, embracing the softness of the female form rather than covering it.

In a 2003 interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, writer Gino Gonzales noted that women began to remove the panuelo altogether from their dresses, saying “There was so much rage for daring to remove it, and those women got flak for doing so.”

The changes coincided with a growing movement towards the general liberalization of women. Just as the American flappers of the 1920s began wearing their hair and skirts shorter, the more conservative Filipina started exploring more shape-flattering forms of formal dress. Eventually, the baro’t saya gave way to a more structured, form-fitting garment.

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The Picture of Beauty

From the '50s to '70s, designer Ramon Valera popularized the removal altogether of the panuelo as well as the tapis. The baro’t saya would eventually became the terno, a one-piece dress cinched more tightly at the waist, and with puffed-out sleeves to emphasize the female body. Maria Clara, who once exemplified modesty, now had her dress tastefully highlighting her curves.

This was also the time that Imelda Marcos became an unofficial ambassador of the terno, wearing it to official functions across the world. The introduction of the butterfly sleeves (attributed by some to designer Pacita Longos), added another iconic element to the design, making Maria Clara even more distinct from other dress types. If Imelda Marcos believed in a philosophy of beauty, then this new dress was the embodiment of her ideal Filipina—beautiful and unique, traditional yet modern.

With its wide international exposure, the terno became synonymous with Filipino formalwear, relegating the baro’t saya to something most people see only in cultural presentations and period pieces.

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Maria Clara Today

Through Balik Saya, the DOT and Intramuros hope to bring the baro’t saya back into the spotlight as a cultural touchstone. “It’s a tangible heritage,” Intramuros Administrator Guiller Asido explains. “[Balik Saya is] about creating awareness, understanding, and appreciation of our heritage in a new light. It’s about creating an identity. With this dress, you can see the context and evolution of the Filipina.”

Bagatsing hopes to find a contemporary take on the baro’t saya—and in turn, find a reflection of who the ideal Filipina is today. “They say that millennials think the ideal Filipina is [revolutionary leader] Gabriela Silang,” she shares. “But I say, ‘Why can’t we mix the two?’ A woman who knows when to fight, but also when to stay quiet. She chooses her battles.”

“It would be nice to remind people that it’s okay to be liberated, but still keep your values intact.”

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Asido seems to agree with the more balanced depiction of the Filipina. “We have this tradition of Maria Clara, but we should also know for a fact that based on Rizal’s description, she stood up for her own rights and principles as well.”


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From left to right: Intramuros Administration Guiller Asido, Fashion Designer and Project Mentor Jojie Lloren, Manila’s 5th District Representative Cristal Bagatsing, and National Museum Director Jeremy Barnes.

The finalists’ works are currently on display at the Destileria Limtuaco Museum in Intramuros until May 26, 2018. On May 28, five winners will be awarded at the National Museum of Natural History, receiving cash prizes, an apprenticeship in Rustan’s, an overnight stay at the Bayleaf in Intramuros, a workshop from SoFA Design Institute, and a possible place in Philippine cultural history.

The baro’t saya, through its history and its intimate association with the Filipina identity, is a living, breathing part of Philippine culture. With Balik Saya, we get to glimpse the next stage of its evolution—and the new face of Maria Clara.


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Balik Saya finalists’ early sketches


A Manton de Manila in orange silk, neatly embroidered in satin stitch with elaborate, multicolored floral patterns that catered to the Spanish taste.


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Handwoven fabric made of piña-seda, a blend of fine liniwan piña, and silk fibers.


Handwoven fine abaca cloth, or sinamay, that was a casualty of a disastrous flood that hit Kalibo, Aklan many years ago.


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This set of vintage hand-embroidered placemats, napkins, and coasters was made in Lumbang, Laguna in the '70s and '80s.


A 1930s vintage dress of pina, hand-embroidered in the French style.


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A baro’t saya with panuelo or kerchief and a tapis or apron entirely made of fine piña cloth decorated with pinili floral patterns and embroidered with calado or drawn work.


A baro’t saya entirely made of sinamay or fine abaca material, hand-painted and embroidered.


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Left: A piña barong tagalong hand-painted with unusual landscape design. Right: A baro’t saya with a panuelo or kerchief and tapis or apron. The saya or skirt made of finely striped cotton or rayadillo has a cola or train.


Destileria Limtuaco President Olivia Limpe-Aw, Sen. Nancy Binay, Manila’s 5th District Rep. Cristal Bagatsing, Patis Tesoro, and Intramuros Administrator Atty. Guiller Asido


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Sonny Tinio

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