The Barong Tagalog is an embroidered upper garment which is known for being the Philippine national attire for men. Properly referred to as baro na Tagalog (in English: “Tagalog dress”), this costume has a rich cultural tradition of more than four centuries, evolving to redefine its appearance and purpose.
The Barong Tagalog gained its popularity and respect in the 1950s when President Ramon Magsaysay chose to wear this garment in all his official and personal affairs, including his inauguration as President. President Ferdinand E. Marcos regime, who, in Batac Museum in Ilocos Norte exhibited his very first Barong Tagalog which he had obtained in 1949, issued a decree proclaiming the “Barong Tagalog Week” (June 5 to 11) and officially designating the said dress as the “national costume” of Filipino men in 1975.
History and Evolution of Barong Tagalog
Before being recognized as the national costume of Filipino men, the Barong Tagalog had been a "witness" to the process of acculturation throughout the different periods in Philippine history.
Prior to the Spanish colonization of the Philippines, the Tagalogs of northern Luzon wore a dress similar to the present-day Barong Tagalog. The said native garment, which is called canga, reached slightly below the waist, was collarless, had an opening in front, and was worn tucked out. According to some historians, the doublet of the canga differed in colors depending on the social rank of the wearer – those with red doublet are worn by chiefs and brave men; while those with black or white were worn by common people – although this remained to be a theory.
The precolonial men wore dresses of differing styles:
- Baro – the typical, loose male upper garment.
- Barong Mahaba – a slightly long, collarless semi-robe, loosely worn, and secured at the waist by a band.
- Chamarreta – a shorter garment similar to present-day jackets.
Upon the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, the style of the said upper garment was altered, shortening it and replacing the collar with a relatively shorter one. The natives, instead of wearing their loose trousers, were told to wear tighter ones, adorned with military stripes. By 1750, the loose trousers had won back their popularity, but this time, decorated with laces and embroideries. The trousers had no buttons, instead silk strings, secured in the three openings at the waist, were used to fasten them. The style lasted until the early 19th century, when the silk handkerchief was introduced to go with the men's attire.
During this period, the natives wore the baro loose and untucked, often with its neck slightly open. The elite natives, on the other hand, wore baro made of handwoven cotton, silk, jusi, piña, or lupis. Such attire characterized the illustrados and the teniente del barrio or gobernadorcillo of that period. Later, the mestizos and wealthy natives had their garments Europeanized, thus, they wore the barong lalake de pechera which was accented with large embroidered designs on the chest area, making it very similar to the Barong Tagalog we know today.
It was during the American occupation period that the term, Barong Tagalog, was first used, presumably because such type of upper garment was first seen among the Tagalogs. When the long-sought independence was finally attained by the Filipinos, the Barong Tagalog with ruffled collars and elaborate designs, reappeared and were used until the 1920s. More designs and colors gave the barong a new look – some having stripes or small flower patterns and others having two colors with a square embroidered design at the chest area. These styles were originally made of jusi and sinamay but later, the so-called “genuine” Barong Tagalog were those made of abaca fiber – depicting a translucent and cool effect (and as such, a camisa de chino was worn underneath). From then on, the garment was worn in formal occasions and ceremonial functions.
The nationalistic spirit of the Filipinos in gaining political independence was incorporated in the Commonwealth Barong Tagalog popularized by President Manuel L. Quezon after the inauguration of the Philippine Commonwealth on November 15, 1935. This variation of the Barong Tagalog, also known as having the Tydings-McDuffie motif, was characterized by the intertwined Philippine Commonwealth and American flags embroidered and found all over the fabric. After World War II, its style was once again altered: this time, an inner pocket was added on the left side and the designs were made more colorful and more Filipino.
Japanese to Post-Liberation Periods
With the arrival of the Japanese in the Philippines came a new trend in wearing the Barong Tagalog. Only the Filipino elites attending important occasions and actors performing in the bodabil were seen wearing this, thus, the barong was elevated as a symbol of the highest social class. On the other hand, from the 1940s to the 1950s, the Valentino style barong appeared and became popular due to the movie protagonists who were marked with this attire.
Magsaysay Presidency to Pre-Martial Law
During Magsaysay's presidency, the Barong Tagalog reached its highest status – as a symbol of Filipino nationalistic spirit. Instead of wearing tuxedos, coats, vests and extravagant suits, like Manuel Quezon, Manuel Roxas and Elpidio Quirino, Magsaysay wore the barong to all official functions that he attended. The design also changed – popular at that time were the traditional flower patterns and later, geometric embroideries. Since it has been the trademarked costume of Magsaysay, who was champion of the masses, the barong became more associated with being “pro-poor” or “maka-masa.”
Presidents who followed Magsaysay's term began wearing Barong Tagalog in their inaugural ceremonies and other important events. The look also changed, making it highly embroidered, and as such, it became Filipino men's most favored formal wear.
In 1975, Ferdinand Marcos declared July 5 to 11 as Barong Tagalog Week, and the attire as the Filipino men's “National Attire” as an incentive for its popularity and national recognition. His admiration for the said attire was proven in an exhibition in Batac Museum where he showcased his Barong Tagalog collection – ranging from those having minute designs to those with flamboyant floral, geometrical and pechera (a quilted adornment in the chest area) embroidery.
The Barong Tagalog is still the most favored attire among the Filipinos. It has been used in formal gatherings, particularly in wedding ceremonies. Because of the increasing demand for the attire, many shops opened producing their own unique styles of barong. The attire was also modified to make it less formal, thus, the appearance of its short-sleeved variety called the Polo Barong. This Polo Barong, in the past 25 years, became the all-around attire and uniform of working Filipino men.
It is still a debate as to why the Barong Tagalog is designed that way. With this single question comes different answers of historical and cultural value:
- The tropical climate of the Philippines may explain why Barong Tagalog is worn untucked, that is, for more ventilation.
- During the Spanish period, the colonizers prohibited the natives from tucking their Barongs inside their trousers to mark the latter as belonging to the lowest social class.
- The garment was made transparent so as to make sure that Filipinos were not hiding anything - specifically, deadly weapons - inside their upper garment. The same reason is given to explain why barongs did not have pockets during the Spanish period.
- The Philippines – Barong Tagalog. (accessed on September 13, 2007).
- Infante, Emylou. “Barong Tagalog.” 101 Filipino Icons. Manila: Adarna House, Inc. and Bench, 2007.
- History of the Barong Tagalog: MyBarong. (accessed on September 13, 2007).
- National Symbols. (accessed on September 13, 2006).