Fashion is like language. While words and clothes are made to say or show just a certain amount, a world of meaning can be concealed in a word or a garment, and only careful scrutiny reveals its true intention. As well, both language and clothing are so tied to a people’s identity, and if they are not in constant use, they will die, and so does the culture that thrived with their use.
Last year, the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) partnered with clothing brand Bench for a mentoring program for regional designers called Fashioning The Terno, with the Philippine national dress for females, the terno, as its focus. The two entities teamed up once again this year for Ternocon, a terno-making convention and contest for regional designers which will culminate in a fashion and cultural showcase at the CCP on November.

A printed blue and white terno by Ramon Valera circa 1950s-1960s.

The Fashioning The Terno mentoring workshop last year served as this year’s first phase. From this collection of regional designers, 30 designers were chosen from 17 regions nationwide, and each finalist is expected to come up with a balintawak (the terno’s less-formal sister) and a terno. A preparatory workshop was slated earlier this month at the CCP’s lobby, making it a positive beehive with sewing machines chugging and the sound of scissors snipping away. The workshops were headed by fashion designers JC Buendia, Len Cabili, Cary Santiago, and Inno Sotto.
BusinessWorld caught up with Mr. Sotto just a few moments after he entered the CCP lobby. Educated in San Francisco and New York, he claimed in an interview that he has been in the industry for “800 years.” Of course this isn’t true, but he has been around long enough to dress many of society’s luminaries, from former first ladies and senators, to many, many socialites, and the queen bee herself, the dictator’s wife Imelda Marcos.
The terno came from the traje de mestiza, more popularly known as the Maria Clara (after the character from the Jose Rizal novels), complete with angel sleeves, a fichu, a blouse, and an overskirt. After the Spanish period of colonization which lasted centuries, the fledgling nation was thrust into the hands of the Americans, and soon enough, American influences entered into Philippine culture. The terno in its present form has influences from fashions popular in the 1930s and ’40s, during the height of the American occupation period. The sleek bodices and the varied hemlines of the skirts are definitely not from these islands. The terno’s butterfly sleeves, which stick out from the woman’s shoulder in a stiff fan-like shape is what sets the terno apart from Western dresses, and the shape of the sleeves contain echoes from the Maria Clara’s past, and therefore, of this nation. According to Mr. Sotto, the terno sleeve must be two to three inches high, and the width of the sleeves should be proportional to the distance between the shoulders and the elbow, and must have an odd number of pleats to strengthen the strongest center pleat. The work that goes into this single element, are invisible to many except the person who made it, and the woman who wears it.
A draped white jersey terno by Ramon Valera for Luz Banzon-Magsaysay circa 1950s-1960s.

Since the terno evolved from the Maria Clara, it could be argued that the Maria Clara is the purer form for it. Mr. Sotto avoids that distinction, and instead argues that the terno is an evolution of it, and sans the sleeves, it’s mostly a Western gown. We can then suppose that maybe, the terno is the perfect distillation of the Filipino spirit, in the sense that while we pick up influences from here and there, and thus change and adapt to them, we still retain a certain part of ourselves, that small certain part making all the difference. “That’s really who we are. We’re influenced by many things.”
While the terno was worn by many glamorous Filipinas, it arguably reached its zenith during the 1960s and ’70s, as worn by former first lady Imelda Marcos, whom Mr. Sotto speaks of in fond terms. Mrs. Marcos had a passion for clothes and show, a passion which would contribute to the country’s foreign debt. Either way, it was undeniable that in her earlier years, before her husband’s abnormally lengthened term from martial law, Mrs. Marcos was quite the attractive woman. Mr. Sotto said: “If there was any woman who actually knew what looked good on her, at a certain point in time, it was Mrs. Marcos.”
The terno looked great on her, and by extension, made the country look great during her official state visits. According to Mr. Sotto, this was because Mrs. Marcos modified some elements of the terno to better suit her. While her predecessors Mrs. Magsaysay and Mrs. Macapagal had their terno sleeves cut at the elbow, Mrs. Marcos had hers cut slightly above the elbow, the better to accentuate her waistline. Neither of the previous first ladies had Imelda’s height, either. Mrs. Marcos also asked for her sleeves to flare slightly outward from the dress, the better to frame her face, and to create an illusion of shapeliness as the silhouette from the flared-out sleeves tapered inward. During the Marcos regime, it was popular to wear ternos during formals, because having the then first lady traveling all over the world while in it made it look, well, cool. It had been so associated with Imelda that if one would look at the portrait of her husband Ferdinand’s successor, Corazon Aquino, Mrs. Aquino wore a different style of Filipiniana. For a long time, the terno was avoided by many to distance themselves from the Marcos regime. Since then, the ternos would only make an outing during the president’s State of the Nation address, and ever since the current president and his austerity measures have been in place, we haven’t seen a terno fashion show there since.
It’s this scarcity of the terno’s use that Mr. Sotto finds troubling. “An entire generation after, all these designers, and the designers after, should at least know what a Philippine terno should look like.” This is why Mr. Sotto finds the Ternocon important. When told that maybe designers do know what the terno looks like, he answered, “But they don’t know what to do with it.”
“Whether your specialty is something very avant-garde… you must at least know something about your national costume.”
Supply follows demand, so there must be a market for ternos for designers to want to make them. When asked what a terno says about the Filipina who wears one, he said, “I don’t know what it will suggest to anyone, the same way that I don’t know what a kimono would suggest when a Japanese wears it. I don’t think it will necessarily suggest anything of the woman — except she’s proud of who she is, wherever she’s from.” He continued, “The mere fact that she wants an element in her attire to suggest that it is a national costume says something about that woman.”
An increasingly globalized world has led to a multitude of disguises and identities that one can slip on and off like a glove. Our polished English and our cool Netflix comedies can make it easy to pass of as not-Filipino, and many times, the situation in our country makes it increasingly tempting to do so. When asked what sort of woman chooses to wear a terno, Mr. Sotto said: “Somebody who is proud and confident of who she is.” As for the terno, much like our national identity, “You’ll have to want to wear it.” – Joseph L. Garcia