The iconic Philippine Terno
Orestes Nuez (The Freeman) - June 12, 2018 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines — In 2003, the Metropolitan Museum of Manila held a “terno” exhibit and ball, with a fashion show of contemporary “terno” designs. There was also a nationwide “terno” design competition. It was the first time in almost four decades, since the Marcos era, that the pride dress of the country was in the spotlight again.

The national dress has evolved beautifully throughout a century. It has gone through transformations and variations since the days of the original “baro’t saya,” which also evolved from earlier traditional Filipino dresses. It’s an interesting story.

The “terno” broke into world attention when Imelda Marcos was first lady. She wore it – particularly the one with butterfly sleeves – on official functions both here and abroad. And yet, way before Imelda’s time, the “terno” had already been long worn by Filipino women.

The term “terno” in Spanish refers to a matching set of clothes made of the same fabric. Hence, it means “matching.” The word also suggests a set.

“Terno” was not a single dress until around the 1040s, according to a fashion historian. The earlier versions consisted of a matching set of “camisa,” “pañuelo,” and “saya.”

The “camisa” was a collarless blouse with the hem at the waist. It was made from flimsy, translucent fabrics such as pineapple fiber and jusi. The sleeves were similar to the so-called “angel wings,” or shaped like bells. During the 1800s, such sleeve design was called “pagoda.”

The “pañuelo” was a piece of starched square cloth (often made from the same material as of the “camisa”) folded several times, and placed over the shoulders dropping down. The purpose of the “pañuelo” was related to modesty – to cover the nape and the upper body since the “camisa” had a low neckline and was translucent. It also doubled as an accent piece when embellishments were added to it, like embroideries and the pin securing it in place.

The “saya” was a skirt shaped like a “cupola,” with a length beginning from the waist until the floor. This was usually comprised of double sheets or cloth panels, called “dos paños” in Spanish, meaning “two cloths.” The second sheet, called “tapis,” was a knee-length over-skirt that hugged the hips.

The “terno” has several versions. There’s the Maria Clara and the “mestiza dress.” The modern “terno,” the versions starting from the early 1900s, has mostly dropped the “panuelo” component altogether.

Then starting in the early 1940s, the “terno” has become a single piece of clothing. Ramon Valera, soon National Artist for Fashion Design, unified the components of the “baro’t saya” into a single dress with exaggerated bell sleeves, cinched at the waist, grazing the ankle, and zipped up at the back. Valera devised the butterfly sleeves for the “terno,” giving the sleeves a solid, built-in but hidden support. The butterfly sleeves have since become the defining feature of the “terno.”

In 2015, the “terno” once again wowed the world when Pia Wurtzbach wore the iconic Philippine dress at the Miss Universe pageant. She won the crown, of course.

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