Heritage

How Legendary Fashion Icon Salvacion Lim Higgins Dressed a Post-War Manila

The late Carmen Guerrero Nakpil called her friend "the angel who gave wings to the pedestrian fantasies of countless grateful women."
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The right clothes—beautiful if possible, but, if nothing else, correct—have been a riveting, compelling need all my life. In Ermita, the little Spanish-American mannerly town nesting on a curve of Manila Bay, where I was born and raised in the 1920s, clothes were more important than food and drink. You could scrimp on the cocido, and the chocolate in the merienda cups might be a little watery and be forgiven, but what you wore was perpetually on display and subject to the rash judgments of the neighborhood.


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Pomona Arellano in a navy jusi cocktail dress embellished with kamoteng kahoy rosettes. From the fashion show “Fashion Portraits,” Far Eastern University Auditorium (1952)


“El Greco” modeled by Sharon Murphy. Charcoal gray silk sheath with a removable sashed bow of citrom silk

Until the town’s destruction in the Battle for Manila in 1945, people wore homemade or clothes especially ordered from modistes and tailors. There were a few ready-to-wear ladies’ dress shops on Mabini St. and some haberdasheries downtown, on the Escolta, but their clientele was mostly American and they remained unpatronized by us.

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Adult women like my mother, my grandmother and great-aunts wore Filipino dresses consisting of a saya or floor-length skirt with a train, over a petticoat, and a transparent blouse and fichu of starched banana, piña fiber, silk, cotton or abaca that was worn over a bodice of lace trimmed cotton. It was called the traje de mestiza because it had evolved from Spanish colonial frocks and the native traditional costume. The Americans said it had “butterfly sleeves.”


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“Gainsborough” modeled by Lorna Laurel. Terno in honey-colored tulle embellished with rhinestone and turquoise cabochons, accented with a panel of cerulean blue silk. From the fashion show “Fashion Portraits” reprise, Riviera Club (1952)

The traje entailed long, careful shopping of material for the skirt that, if printed, had to be replicated on the transparent camisa y pañuelo, or, if black, could be cleverly matched with a bright or somber top. It was possible to acquire “sets” of printed dress lengths with matching, already embroidered blouses which only needed a seamstress to cut and sew in the desired style. But more demanding ladies had their own embroiderers work on the gauzy material according to their whims. The washing and starching of a blouse and fichu took a whole day, for it had to be soaked in tree bark and lime juice and dried with the help of a sunny breeze.

The donning of the costume was even more difficult, requiring both patience and pluck. The camisa had to be pinned into shape on the wearer and closed with little gold safety pins connected to each other by a fine chain. And folding the pañuelo into a fichu was a ritual passed on from mother to daughter.

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In my time, only married or elderly women wore this costume.

My contemporaries and I wore it only for the town fiesta procession, or when on a religious pilgrimage like Antipolo or a patriotic celebration. Like other matrons, my mother wore loose, flowing Western lounging gowns in the house. My own clothes, including lingerie, were made to measure by a specialist dress-maker out of store-bought dress lengths. There were no ready-to-wear clothes for men, either. Their Western suits, trousers, and shirts were all made by bespoke tailors. My mom patronized several modistas, my own favorite being the wife of an older cousin, Rosita Jose de Guerrero who was actually an elitist, talented haute-couture practitioner and was above copying from the photos in style magazines, but drew her own designs. I was blessed with a generous and inordinately vain father who paid all my huge bills happily, because he, the town’s dandy, had monumental respect for nice clothes. 

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My father was an inspired dandy; he had a large wardrobe of bespoke suits in summer-weight Palm Beach wool, off-white or pearl gray, worn with bright ties, boutonnières and fedoras; sports jackets, tuxedos, black or white with cummerbunds; also slacks, racing jumpsuits and embroidered chinos. My two brothers followed in his footsteps. But my Guerrero grandfather outclassed them all by wearing a succession of the same suit of dazzling white cotton drill, with a white starched shirt, a tie, belt, and shoes, in severe black, morning, noon and night, everywhere.

We all had tall wooden cabinets with carved doors and full-length mirrors to preen by. I had a debutante’s trousseau, starting with made-to-measure slips, nightgowns, peignoirs in silk, frocks by the dozen inspired by Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn or Hedy Lamarr, and ball gowns of taffeta, lace, organza, velvet, or Japanese obis.


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Primed for la dolce vita, we were stunned and heartbroken when the Japanese Imperial Forces bombed Manila after Pearl Harbor in December 1941, invaded the Philippines and marched into Manila as Open City.

For three and a half years of the Japanese Occupation, we fed ourselves by selling our clothes, one or two at a time to the farmers who would come every morning from the provinces in their horse-drawn buggies to peddle foodstuff, vegetables, fruit, chickens, eggs.

By the end of the war, in February 1945, after the Battle of Manila which reduced the city south of the Pasig into rubble, we had lost all our earthly possessions. I had exactly one dress left, the one on my back, a yellow print wraparound maternity dress and one large towel. I wore one or the other during the three weeks the Battle for Manila between the Japanese and the Americans lasted. I had become a widow with two babies. We were lucky to have scraps of second-hand garments from U.S. relief agencies.

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To my first job in the newspapers, I wore black skirts cut off from the dresses donated by Oxfam to the refugee centers and white cotton blouses run up by a little seamstress in the next hovel.

Soon after, imported dresses from the U.S. appeared in the new shops in still half-ruined Manila. I quickly bought myself a long jacket of bright hot-pink (then called fuchsia) wool which I wore as an evening wrap, a raincoat, a wind-breaker, an all-occasion garment to give a zip and a lift to my dreary blouses and black skirts. Into the newsrooms where I worked, American magazines had drifted, full of fashion photos which brought pangs of envy and frustration. I perused them with my heart thumping wildly.

Onto this bleak fashion desert stepped Freddie Castillo, a tall, young, energetic reporter of the Evening News, with whom I occasionally went dancing on group nights out, with the other reporters, at the nightclubs on Rizal Avenue. He told me one day about a young relative of his who sewed dresses and lived in a little apartment close to our newspaper office. He offered to take me to her house so that I could look at what his cousin was doing, and maybe order some dresses.

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“Triomphe” modeled by Carlyn Manning. White faille damask ballgown with an asymmetrically ruched hemline. From the fashion show “Choix ‘55” (1955).

It was a new, jerry-built, small house in a muddy street and, after negotiating the wooden staircase, I met a shy young woman, sweet-faced and soft-spoken, Freddie’s cousin, just in from Legaspi in Albay, in the Bicol peninsula. Her name was Salvación Lim. She showed me a few daytime frocks she had made for other customers, and I noted the careful finish on seams and hems that I’d been taught to look for. I ordered an evening dress to wear to a big dinner dance I’d been slated to attend at the American Officers Club in Quezon City with the editor of the U.S. Army Western Pacific Forces newspaper. I had, quite literally, nothing to wear.


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Salvacion Lim, 32, amid the backstage maelstrom around her. 

Miss Lim produced a stunning long gown with a high-waisted slim skirt of black crepe and a bodice of soft beige, nude colored tulle with a hood which was decorated with little appliques of curlicued black sequins. It was a Parisian miracle which left me inarticulate with joy. It was a perfect fit, too. And when I made my entrance at that Officers Club ballroom and gently pushed back the little hood of tulle so that it framed my shoulders, my social career in postwar Manila was ensured for life. I wore the gown again and again. My daughters still talk about it, the younger one having claimed it as her heirloom memory. Salvación had been well-named. She proved to be my—and a multitude of other grateful women’s—salvation, all through the years she practiced her craft and her art. She was a sudden burst of light that saved us from the harshness of the utter loss and deprivation wrought by the war.

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“Charmeresse” modeled by Mary Randolph Mellian. Avocado green silk bouffant dress with a coat of fishnet embellished with silk flowers.

Although her older sister, Puring, continued to call her “Vación,” her family’s term of endearment, I began to call her SLIM because it had become the logo of her burgeoning fashion business. It evolved over the years into a Fashion Institute where I sent my daughter Lisa Nakpil (now better known, in the GenX orthography, as Lizza). SLIM became a constant presence in my life, our friendship extending to her immediate family. I remember meeting her brother Ramon, a tall, personable banker who’d married one of my long-time intimates, Alice Feria Lim. It was during the weekend I spent in their house in Legaspi with my cousin/chum Leny Guerrero when I saw, for the first time, the stupendous, majestic symmetry of Mayon Volcano which dominates that city and region.

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The Bicol peninsula is so beautiful I have little doubt that it is the main source of the artistic impulse and the moral stamina of its natives. The countryside is lushly verdant and fertile. A thick, green mantle seems to grow before one’s eyes, glowingly different from the forests and plains of neighboring provinces.

We had traversed the Southern Luzon landscape by train and suddenly, out of nowhere, it seemed to me, as the train ran smoothly and unhurriedly, there loomed—the Volcano! It was one of the reasons I was traveling to Legaspi, and I had been looking forward with much anticipation to my first sight of it. Just the same, nothing had prepared me for its magnificence, rising unexpectedly from a gentle plain to a great height, a splendidly wide cone, perfectly symmetrical, encompassing all, noble, silent and majestic yet so close, I felt that if I extended my arm, I could touch it.

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I began to think that, of course, people who’d been born and raised and lived constantly in the shadow of one of nature’s great creations would inevitably and instinctively be some of God’s most creative and artistic children. My cousin Leny and I spent a deliriously happy weekend with Ramon, Alice and her daughter. The majesty of Mayon Volcano and the quiet beauty of the landscape were like balm on the frustrations and exhaustion that had assailed us in noisy, ugly, post-war Manila. The air, the color of the trees, the water and the scent of Legaspi and the Bicol peninsula were somehow different. Later I learned that Salvación and Ramon’s mother had hand-painted her own ternos or national dresses. When I met Puring, I realized that she, too, was probably animated by the same artistic instincts and in addition, I was told she had been formally trained in dress construction in Paris and Rome. And their father, the original Bicolano, had been Luis Samson Lim Katiam of Legaspi City, also an artist and a painter.

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“Favorite” modeled by Mari Erquiaga Banuvar. Charcoal gray strapless dress with dark gray and olive beading. Worn with a short evening coat in slate-colored silk gazar.

I learned later that Salvación had studied Fine Arts at the University of Santo Tomas under the great National Artist for painting, Carlos (Botong) Francisco, whose magnificent murals continue to ennoble many of the country’s historic halls and buildings. SLIM’s sense of drama and the intensity and audacity of her creations indeed recall to me Botong’s compositions. Salvación’s fantastic creativity must have come from both her genes and her environment. Both nature and nurture, together with her personal, individual talent for beauty and style, had contributed to her career.

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Interetmodeled by Mrs. Lloyd Wheeler. White Swiss cotton lace evening suit with a rolled collar dipping at the back.

One of the high points in my long friendship and association with Salvación was her winning first prize in the first Fashion and Style Competition held in Manila on the occasion of the Boys Town Carnival and International Exposition in 1948. She designed and executed a magical terno ball gown of pearl gray heavy satin, with a large bow at the back of the waistline fastening a low-waisted skirt that flowed into a generous train composed of puckered shell-like pouches centered with pearls and crystals. I was honored when she asked me to model it that one evening in the open-air auditorium. It was a masterpiece of matchless beauty. I never again, throughout the rest of my long life, was fortunate enough to wear something as smashingly grand as that pearl gray satin terno by SLIMS. It was displayed several years afterwards at a fashion benefit at Clark Field when it was still an American base, and it will surely be shown at the commemorative exhibition in Metro Manila.

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Consuelo Madrigal Collantes in a white lace terno with a draped olive gazar sash and bow accented with crimson (mid-1950s).

For many years, Salvación gently agreed to spare time from her busy atelier, her increasingly popular haute couture shop and the fashion school she founded, to make divinely chic dresses for me. The last one she designed was a pale-olive cocktail dress cunningly ruched, with an asymmetrical bow at the hip which I wore to my youngest son’s wedding, and again and again to many festive occasions, drawing many compliments. A cocktail jacket of green brocade with white stylized flowers that SLIM made for me more than twenty years earlier, I wore to the book party for Legends & Adventures given for me by Chito Madrigal Collantes in her home a few months before she died in March 2008. It was vintage SLIM, a great legendary and adventuresome artist, the angel who gave wings to the pedestrian fantasies of countless grateful women like me.

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“Soufflé de Vent” modeled by Maribel Aboitiz. White Swiss lace strapless ball dress with diagonally ruched cinnamon-colored gazar.

*This story was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Town&Country Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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