HISTORICALLY the politics of dress as expressed in terms of a Filipino dress /Western dress binary had gendered implications. Women as 'bearers of tradition' wore national dress [*see postscript below] while men wore the western suit and jacket, reflecting the gendered power relationship in the society: Because of the stark visual contrast between these two types of dress, these visual markers became politically potent. Women in the Philippines, from suffragists to powerful women, have used clothing and gender stereotypes associated with particular forms of dress as part of political strategy and empowerment.
Politicians of all ilk and of both sexes have manipulated dress precisely because it is a very visible public marker of one's allegiance, identity and political colour. And yet, the study of the politics of dress has not yet been given much attention in the production of knowledge on politics in the Philippines. Instead, dress studies have focused on the history of Philippine costume, the ethnography of dress, or the history of clothing materials. This article is a step towards a history of appearances in twentieth-century Philippines, focusing on the politics of dress and its gendered implications. It explores how women have capitalized on the semiotics of dress as part of political strategy and empowerment. When national dress was 'invented' in Asia, women were represented as 'bearers of tradition' associated with the emerging nations' past. But they were very astute readers of the semiotics of dress and used clothing as a strategy for pursuing quite radical agendas.
In the American colonial era (1902-1946), Filipino men (but not women until 1937) were permitted to vote and run for office at the local and national levels as part of America's policy of democratic tutelage in which the Philippines was to be gradually 'given' the institutions of democracy (free press, elections, etc) in preparation for self-government. The gender inequity in citizenship was reflected in attire. Men wore the western suit and jacket (the Americana) while women wore national dress in terms of a terno (national dress with butterfly sleeves) and a pa˝uelo (Filipino national dress). This sartorial binary with men in Western dress and women in native dress mirrored in vestimentary code the political power axis: Western dress reflected the powerful colonizers, and Filipino men by donning Western attire were associating themselves with the powerful colonizers: while native dress was worn by women, who as disenfranchised citizens, epitomized the colonized subject - the bearer and wearer of tradition. Although, in actual fact, women were already entering universities, business and the professions, and therefore were behaving distinctly 'modern', men still imagined these women as 'traditional'.
'Repackaging' the Modern WomanBut the fact that the suffragists chose to wear the terno and pa˝uelo did not imply that these women were accepting unproblematically, the role assigned to them by their menfolk. Filipino suffragists campaigned for the use of Western dress as uniforms in classrooms at schools and universities and in the workforce because they argued that it was more practical attire. They claimed that wearing the voluminous butterfly sleeves could prove dangerous in a chemistry laboratory with Bunsen burners as they could easily catch fire. Yet, they themselves wore the terno and pa˝uelo to work and for all official duties. The terno and pa˝uelo were so associated with the suffragists that one scholar has labeled them 'pa˝uelo activists' and caricatures of them always depicted them in this attire. These women were actually proposing radical changes to the Spanish Civil Code as well as campaigning for the vote at a time when the majority of men were against woman suffrage. Lobbying for women's equality seemed less 'modern' if the lobbyist was dressed in a terno and a pa˝uelo. In reality, the Filipina had come a long way. But in literally 'repackaging' the modern Filipina in the 'traditional' women's narrative, the suffragists were able to win a campaign for the vote despite overwhelming odds.
The Moral Power of NunsDuring the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986), militant nuns also used the semiotics of dress and tapped cultural constructions of the feminine as 'moral guardian' to resist authoritarian rule. Nuns were aware of their 'moral power' and of the symbolic capital exuded by the nun's habit. Vatican II recommended that nuns shed their habits and veils so that they could mingle with the ordinary people and avoid privileged treatment. Just at the very time nuns in the US were discarding their habits, Filipino nuns discovered that the habit was an instrument of 'moral power' in the Philippine context. Since Catholicism was a source of legitimacy, one way to advertise their moral power was to wear the habit. Nuns usually stood in the front lines of strikes based on the premise that the military would hesitate to 'beat up' a nun, and nuns smuggled documentation on political prisoners inside their habits. In the People Power 1 'revolution' that toppled the Marcos regime, nuns armed with rosaries faced the macho military armed with machine guns, and triumphed.
The Iron ButterflyAt the other end of the spectrum, First Lady Imelda Marcos (the wife of President Ferdinand Marcos, the other half of the conjugal dictatorship), manipulated clothing (specifically 'national dress') in her attempt to equate herself with the body politic. The most powerful woman in the Philippines in the 1970s, she popularised the terno (though a modern terno without the pa˝uelo) and was seldom seen in any other attire in public. This was part of the First Family's agenda of fashioning themselves as the legendary characters of Philippine folklore and as nationalist subjects. But this self-representation was not endorsed by local audiences. Instead the terno became metonymy for Imelda rather than metaphor for nation. In political cartoons depicting her before and after the end of martial law, the terno was the signifier for the former First Lady who was given epithets such as 'the Iron Butterfly' in reference to the terno's butterfly sleeves.
Gendered Strategies for Negotiating PowerThe struggle for full citizenship was expressed in sartorial code as clothing was used as a strategy by the disenfranchised to negotiate for space in the body politic and by a powerful woman who claimed to represent the 'nation'. The politics of dress expressed in terms of a Filipino dress/Western dress binary had gendered implications and complex gendered strategies for negotiating power. Since national dress is also constantly being reinvented, politicians, both male and female, have sought to reinterpret national dress based on their agendas. Precisely because dress expresses a multitude of codes, the battle over 'national dress' becomes more than a struggle to alter appearances.
* POSTSCRIPT FROM MINA ROCES: