ONCE upon a time, piña – the local fabric best known for its translucence and stiffness – was as soft and flowy as lace, a product. And that was somehow related to the soil the pineapple plant is grown on.
This and other equally surprising bits of information were discussed in a talk by Dr. Stephanie Coo, called “Ubiquity, Uniqueness, and the Theatricality of 19th-century Philippine Clothing,” presented on Sept. 24 on the Facebook page of Gabii sa Kabilin, a heritage initiative by the Ramon Aboitiz Foundation, Inc. Ms. Coo is the author of Clothing the Colony, 19th Century Philippine Sartorial Culture, 1820-1896, which won at the IIAS-ICAS International book Prize 2021, being named Best Book in Humanities- English Edition.
“What’s unique about Filipino clothing are the materials,” she said, pointing out the ubiquitous formalwear Filipino fabric piña, made out of fibers of the crown of leaves from the Spanish Red variety of pineapple. “The material itself is quite itchy,” she said, as well as translucent. The nature of the material paved the way for such innovations related to protection: of the body itself but also from the gaze, hence, clothing worn underneath (usually of cotton), provided comfort, as well as protection from prying eyes.
She also noted the difference between the piña fabric now and the piña fabric in the 1800s. Comparing samples from then and now, she concluded, “Now it’s more stiff.” Apparently, piña then felt like lace. “It flows,” she said.
Further inquiry yielded that the soil on which piña is supposed to grow has changed. “The pH level has changed,” she said, noting that one of the more prosperous regions for piña production then was in the island of Panay. She also reported that efforts to produce piña in India were started, but, “The soil, again, was different.”
“What was different about the soil of Panay?,” she asked.
SLEEVES AND CLASS
She also made a case for the evolution of sleeves.
She presented images of earlier fashions which showed narrow sleeves, related to the fashions in Europe at that time. Gradually, they became wider for varied reasons. Of course, the hot climate in the Philippines came into play, but also, she showed illustrations of 19th-century domestic helpers in the Philippines. “Women started to do things.” Shorter and wider sleeves allowed for more comfort at work, while for the upper classes, sleeves became a space for leisurely needlework, which showed off a young woman’s skill in embroidery.
With class coming into play, Ms. Coo delved into the tapis, an early overskirt. Upper-class women sometimes did not wear it, it sometimes being a marker of a life of work: it either reminded one of aprons, or wipes where vendors wiped their hands.
Still, the tapis slipped in and out of fashion, as shown in illustrations where some women of means wore an overskirt, while many mestizas (mixed race women of European and Filipino descent) went without it, being a nod towards worldliness.
“When you cannot modify your facial features — for example, to look more mestiza — what people did to show status was to manipulate their external appearance through clothing,” said Ms. Coo.
“Clothing are markers of race, class, gender — and what is interesting is in an emerging field,” she said about memory studies. “How are clothes remembered? How is clothing discussed? We remember people — the wearers — of memorable clothing.
“When we’re talking about clothes, we’re really talking about people.” — Joseph L. Garcia