Shopping for the perfect wedding dress is thrilling but can often be overwhelming. Brides looking for a gown that is also reflective of their cultural roots may experience these feelings multiplied tenfold. For brides with Filipino heritage, growing up in North America could mean becoming distant from their own cultural practices. But this doesn’t mean the eagerness of incorporating their roots in their wedding—particularly their wedding dress—is diminished in any way.
Enter the Filipiniana, an umbrella term for all things traditionally Filipino-themed. The delightfully sheer Barong Tagalog and chic Terno with its elegant butterfly sleeves are what immediately comes to mind, but there’s a lot more to consider when choosing a Filipiniana wedding dress, and certainly, a lot more sartorial possibilities to be explored.
A Short History of the Filipiniana
The most well-known form of Filipiniana is the slender, form-fitting Terno with butterfly sleeves. But at its very core, Filipiniana is the Baro’t Saya, which translates to “shirt/blouse and skirt,” which was worn by women in the pre-Hispanic era, and by women in non-Christianized societies in the Philippines. The Baro’t Saya consists of a waist-length blouse (baro or camisa), a long skirt (saya or falda), a shorter overskirt (tapis or patadyong), and a kerchief or shawl (pañuelo or alampay), worn over the shoulders.
The Baro’t Saya produced many variants over the years. The aristocratic Traje de Mestiza is among the most recognizable with its pagoda sleeves and luxurious lace detailing and embroidery; the Balintawak, the casual variant used in rural areas; the Kimona that was more widely worn in Visayas, with the patadyong tube overskirt; and the Terno, which saw the unification of blouse and skirt in the late 1940s, and remains the most recognizable form of Filipiniana to this day.
What to Know About the Filipiniana
“The challenge with Filipiniana is the fit,” says Filipiniana fashion designer Caroline Mangosing of the challenges of ready-to-wear formal Filipiniana. “The sizing is usually the problem—it runs very small and the sleeves run short.”
Meet the Expert
Caroline Mangosing is the founder and owner of Toronto-based VINTA Gallery, a sustainable fashion brand specializing in bespoke and ready-to-wear modern Filipiniana fashion ethically produced in the Philippines.
The fabric traditionally used with high-quality Filipiniana presents its own set of challenges as well. The classic sheer quality and silky texture of Filipiniana is achieved by using Piña, a natural fiber sourced from native Philippine Red Pineapple leaves, or Jusi which is sourced from Abacá, or Manila Hemp. Both fabrics, while ideal for the humidity in the Philippine tropics, tend to become brittle and easily damaged in the dry, North American climate. The delicate nature of these fabrics, paired with their rarity and extensive hand-weaving process racks up their price tag. This leads to the use of polyester organza in many inexpensive but visibly low-quality ready-to-wear Filipiniana fashion that is easiest to access for brides outside of the Philippines.
But these traditional fabrics aren’t what necessarily makes a Filipiniana wedding dress. Mangosing explains that any of these three things truly dictates the form of any Filipiniana outfit: sheer fabric, embroidery, and structure—particularly of the butterfly sleeves. Because she doesn’t recommend pure Piña for her clients in North America, Mangosing whipped up an innovative spin on traditional methods: “I only use silk organza and Jusi, and cotton silk from Korea. It’s translucent, but feels really silky.”
Filipiniana Pineapple Fabric
Piña is considered the queen of all Philippine fabrics, with its signature silky gloss and luxurious softness. While it is often bypassed by cheaper and more accessible fabrics like cotton, the Piña weaving industry remains in small enclaves in the Philippines. Its lightweight nature makes it easy to blend with other fabrics. “Weavers in [Panay Island] are mixing Piña with cotton,” Mangosing shares. “It’s beautiful but super expensive.” Piña Seda, a mixture of Piña and silk, is also becoming popular. Piña-Jusi is also another popular blend.
Many people often mistake other fabrics for it, but Mangosing tells us there is only one way to tell if a fabric is truly Piña: “Silk organza is imitation Piña, where you can see the grid of the threads, but with true Piña you can only see the horizontal threads.”
Although Filipiniana started out with sloping pagoda sleeves and is usually obscured by shawls, the butterfly style began flitting its way in around the 1920s. By the time the 1940s rolled around, the butterfly sleeve was here to stay. “But there’s a difference between a modern puffed sleeve that you can find at Zara and a butterfly sleeve,” Mangosing clarifies. “A butterfly sleeve that is Filipino has the edge on the top of the sleeve and it’s kind of flat.”
To achieve the arch, each sleeve is constructed with a specific number of pleats, and lined with cañamaso—a stiff netting fabric—in order to retain its upright structure. This kind of structuring makes traditional butterfly sleeves very delicate—so they are usually detachable from the dress, and are difficult to move around in. “It doesn’t recover once squished, then you’d just have this weird crinkle in your hard sleeve.”
Mangosing found a modern solution, born out of the need for her North American clientele to put coats over their Filipiniana dresses. “I use a hard ballerina tulle for the lining so it will bend and fold under a jacket and pop back up.” She also adds top-stitching around the edge of the sleeve so that it can easily be pressed flat. Many brides choosing the Filipiniana route for their weddings in the Philippines also opt to get the traditional butterfly sleeves woven separately to match ready-to-wear sleeveless wedding gowns instead.
One thing that Mangosing recommends for brides when it comes to Filipiniana wedding dresses is to opt for ensemble pieces. Not only does custom-made Filipiniana rack up a hefty price tag, but it also serves as a tangible, wearable piece of culture/heritage, so it only makes sense to wear it more than once. Mangosing’s couture brides usually request ensemble pieces where they can swap out the bottoms for more comfortable pants or skirts to wear for the reception.