Liberation and a fashion show

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan (The Philippine Star) - May 27, 2013 - 12:00am

One of the simple pleasures of living in London is discovering precious objects. For many Filipino treasure-hunters living in London or just visiting, this means art works, photographs, books, magazines, postcards, and other souvenirs, memorabilia and artifacts which have anything to do with the Philippines and have history and heritage written all over them. Such treasures may be found in antique shops, car boot sales, second-hand and specialty shops, and market fairs, the last being more common in the English countryside.

But one ought to have a sizeable budget to be able to afford some of these objects of delight, even if these be deemed bargains by some reckoning.  A well-off colleague who is a past master at recognizing veritable national treasures which have found their way in the shelves and dark stockrooms of shops across Europe has unearthed well-preserved paintings by Filipino masters of the 19th and early 20th century, has set himself up for life as the reward for his successful art sleuthing, kept some of these valuable finds for a planned private museum and have sold the others to collectors and local museums.

My decidedly more modest and very affordable finds included prewar and early postwar mint-condition, cellophane-wrapped copies of National Geographic, with very sharp, dramatic photos of the Philippines, including the battle for the “liberation” of Manila, which won for the city the unflattering title as second most devastated during the war, after Warsaw, after going through an inferno of destruction even beyond the imagination of fictionist Dan Brown.        

I managed to save a copy or two of these antique Nat Geo magazines from Ondoy. The others, together with some irreplaceable typewritten manuscripts dating back to the 1980s, were in a box drenched by that fierce storm’s rainwater which had seeped into the house. Unchecked for rain damage, this and other damp boxes were infested by termites in no time at all.

But one magazine called Pix, published in Australia as most probably the version of Life magazine Down Under, and dated Nov. 24, 1945, I managed to save from typhoon and termite. It has survived with frayed edges as its only damage, kept in storage for the past 68 years, first in London by some antiquarian and later in a balikbayan box among several crowding my carless garage.

Why should this magazine be so important? Mainly because it has a pictorial — headlined “Fashion Show/Manila stages its first big postwar social event” — depicting affluent Filipino survivors of the Pacific War and the Ever Loyal and Distinguished City’s destruction, and taking up where they had left off during the gilded age of America’s peacetime colony in the Pacific. The main story is just a few paragraphs (quoted here verbatim) about wartime coping and what may have been high society’s comeback event of the first post-war year:

“During Japanese occupation of Manila, Philippines capital, wealthy and socially prominent Filipinos wisely dressed in old and unostentatious clothes, mingled with the peons, and existed as best they could on the meager rations allowed then by the Japs.

“Now Manila is rising Phoenix-like from the ashes of invasion, and recently the city’s first big postwar party was held at the partly restored Manila Hotel. Highlight was a huge mannequin parade featuring frocks by Filipino designers. Centre of attention above is lovely Miss Espanita Vidal, who modeled an evening gown, ‘Stardust,’ by Guerrero.

“Much of the material used in frocks in the Manila Hotel mannequin parade was resurrected from hidden caves in the mountains. When Jap invasion threatened Manila, many well-to-do Filipinos hid their treasures. Heirloom silver, pictures, jewellery, statuary and priceless old embroideries were taken secretly into the mountains of the interior and cached in dry caves. Liberation has brought these articles to light again.

“Filipino women of all classes pride themselves on their exquisite national costume, and a love of fine materials is inborn in everyone. Even modern European frocks retain a faint touch of the Filipino style, which features large sleeves, bright colors and beautifully intricate embroidery.”

The rest of the pictorial was devoted to photos of the event, with captions about the models (Chona Kasten’s surname is misspelled as Yamael, the lady surnamed Edugue is probably Eduque) and the people who attended the glittering event. Some of the captions reveal a degree of unfamiliarity with Philippine society and history, but the interesting photos of the show make up for this shortcoming.

Truly, Manila must have appeared to the world like the very “Gates of Hell” during the days and months following the apocalyptic bombing and shelling by friendly forces, and the close-quarters combat between Gen. MacArthur’s army and the desperate Japanese troops, with more than a hundred thousand Filipino civilians killed in the crossfire or butchered by the cornered occupation army.

For those whose fortunes were retrieved and whose frocks could be brought out once more, Liberation brought great relief after so many years of displacement and grief.


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