KASAMA Vol. 19 No. 1 / January-February-March 2005 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Women, Citizenship and the Politics of Dress in Twentieth-Century Philippines

By Mina Roces

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 Woman

But 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 Nuns

During 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 suffragists and the nuns were disenfranchised - partial citizens in the body politic. In the early twentieth century, women could not vote. In the Marcos years, elections were meaningless due to vote 'rigging'. Dress was used by the marginalised as a strategy in the bid to claim citizenship rights.

The Iron Butterfly

At 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 Power

The 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.


Alzona, Encarnacion (1954). The Filipino Woman: Her Social, Economic and Political Status, 1565-1937. Manila: Benipayo Press.

Gwekoh, Sol H. (1952). Josefa Llanes Escoda: A Life Dedicated to Humanitarian Service. Manila: Fortune Publishers.

Rafael, Vicente (2000). 'Patronage Pornography and Youth Ideology and Spectatorship During the Early Marcos Years', White Love and Other Events in Filipino History. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Roces, Alfredo, and Irene Roces (1992) Medals and Shoes: Political Cartoons of the Times of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1965 - 1992. Metro-Manila: Anvil Publishing Co.

Tirona, Mary Grace Ampil (1996). 'Panuelo Activism', Women's Role in Philippine History: Selected Essays. Quezon City: University Center for Women's Studies, University of the Philippines.


MINA ROCES is a Phd graduate from the University of Michigan. She teaches at the University of New South Wales, School of History in Sydney. Born in the Philippines, Mina completed high school in Manila, then migrated to Australia with her family because of martial law. Her books include Women, Power and Kinship Politics: Female Power in Post-War Philippines (Westport Connecticut: Praeger, 1998, Metro-Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2000), and Kinship Politics in Post-War Philippines: The Lopez Family, 1946-2000 (Manila: De La Salle University Press, 2001). In addition, she has co-edited three anthologies. Her research interests include gender and power in 20th century Philippines, a current big research project on second wave feminisms, spectacles and dress, the politics of dress in the Philippines, and Filipino migrants in Australia and transnational feminisms.
'Women, Citizenship and the Politics of Dress in Twentieth-Century Philippines' was first published in NIASnytt-Asia Insights, No. 1, 2004, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publishers and the author. The whole text of the journal can be downloaded at

The cartoon of Encarnacion Alzona is printed here with permission from the Ateneo Library of Women's Writings (ALIWW), 3rd Floor Rizal Library Annex, Ateneo de Manila University, Loyola Heights, Quezon City, Philippines.
TelFax: (632) 426-6001 local 5811
Visit the ALIWW web site at

"Kasama" is indebted to Mina Roces for assisting us to obtain permission to reprint her article and her further comments on the subject.


The use of the term "national dress" in this article refers to the terno, the native garment most popularly used by women politicians and most recognized internationally as 'Filipino dress'. This does not mean however that no other type of 'Filipino dress' was used politically. On the contrary some female politicians experimented with Muslim dress, and ethnic dress (like that of the highlands) and the kimona, balintawak and patadyong. Scholars in dress history have made a connection between the baro't saya of the 16th century and the evolution of the terno of the 20th century.

Women's attire in the middle of the 16th century was described by Spaniards as consisting mainly of the sarong and a small collarless jacket, shirt or doublet of the same material. In the 18th century the baro't saya or the Hispanized clothing became the dominant form of dress. The tapis was a garment worn at the waist covering the skirt which was often made of very fine material. Hence, the tapis was worn over it to conform to rules of modesty.

The development of the pa˝uelo followed a similar logic. Since the baro was also made of fine material, a piece of cloth of the same fabric as the saya was worn over the baro to cover the breasts. This piece of cloth (which doubled as a veil) later evolved into the pa˝uelo. According to historians, the use of the pa˝uelo was an imposition of the Spanish missionaries on the 'Indian' women who resisted undergarments.

In the American colonial era (1902-1946), sleeves evolved from the bell-shape to the butterfly sleeves design associated with the terno today. The tapis began to disappear and the sleeves began to get shorter. When the blouse was joined to a skirt of the same material, the modern terno was born influenced by American evening gowns. In the post-war years a terno with detachable sleeves was all the go (remove the butterfly sleeves and the terno was instantly transformed). Today, the modern terno, is pa˝uelo-less, with smaller butterfly sleeves.


J. Moreno, Philippine Costume. Manila: J. Moreno Foundation, 1995.

Salvador Bernal & Georgina R. Encanto, Patterns for the Filipino Dress From the Traje de Mestiza to the Terno (1890s-1960s). Manila: Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1992.

'The Ins and Outs of the Terno', in Alfredo Roces (ed.), Filipino Heritage, Vol 10. Manila: Lahing Pilipino, 1978, p. 2541, and The Terno, Vol II, April 1947, p. 40.