Filipino Icon: Terno
The terno is a traditional Filipino one-piece long dress. It is known for its butterfly sleeves and is usually worn in formal occasions. The name of the dress means ‘to match’ in Spanish, and describes the time when the top and bottom pieces of the dress were made of matching materials sewn at the centre.
The evolution of the terno
It is said that the terno had evolved from the early Spanish era every day wear called baro’t saya. The baro’t saya is a four-piece dress made up of a bodice (camisa), shawl (panuelo), long skirt (saya) and the overskirt (tapis).
By the 1800s, the baro’t saya changed its look. From a simple four-piece ensemble, the sleeves of the camisa were shaped into cuffed bells called ‘angel wings.’ The saya also gained a ballooning form. The panuelo and tapis were retained to hide exposed around the neck skin, the bosom area and to cover the shape of the hips. This was called the Maria Clara, named after Jose Rizal’s famous character in Noli Me Tangere.
(left to right) Simple baro’t saya, the Maria Clara and the traje de mestiza
During the American period, the panuelo and tapis of the Maria Clara were removed to create a two-piece dress called the traje de mestiza. In place of the angel wings, the butterfly sleeves were made. Traje de mestiza can also be called the early terno since both top and bottom pieces were made of matching material. Terno is a Spanish word that means ‘to match.’
The terno that finally survived the American period has been stitched together at the centre, creating one-piece flowing gown. From the ballooning skirt, the lower half also became narrower and more flowing. This is the terno that has been popularised by Imelda Marcos.
The terno is considered one of the most iconic of Filipiñana attires today because of its history of use. From an everyday Filipina wear, the terno became an exclusive attire for the elite class when the mestizos drifted away from the Maria Clara and made the traje de mestiza fashionable.
In more recent times, it was Imelda’s revival of the terno that made it the formal attire of choice among the upper society. The design of the terno also makes it one of the most difficult to wear. It does not allow sexiness and slouching — wearers must assume an erect posture and a stately stance in order to justify the attire. In addition, the simple yet elegant embroidery puts the wearer in the difficult position of balancing the clothing and her accessories. The overall look is therefore a reflection of her fashion taste.
The latest trends
Today, the President’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) is one of the few occasions where the Filipina elite don the terno. Fashion designers today also try to outdo each other in terms of re-interpreting this difficult piece.
(left to right) Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in a fuchsia red Inno Sotto, Senator Loren Legarda in a bareback fuchsia terno by Paul Cabral and Congresswoman Lucy Torres-Gomez in an embellished, pale blush Randy Ortiz terno with train
Some of the notable names in this exclusive niche are: Paul Cabral (who has dressed senators Pia Cayetano, Loren Legarda and congresswoman and former actress Lucy Torres-Gomez), Randy Ortiz (Tootsy Angara, Lucy Torres-Gomez, Venus Raj) and Pepsi Herrera (Jinkee Pacquiao, Bernadette Herrera-Dy).
Avant-garde designers still try to push the limits of the strict terno design with more radical changes. But notice that in the following designs, the butterfly sleeves still make them distinctly terno:
Designers are (left to right) Steph Verano, Kermit Tesoro and Joey Samson
Some modern ternos still makes use of traditional materials like piña, abaca, hablon and others to create rich embroideries, drapes and pleats that give this iconic gown a contemporary but still uniquely Filipino flair. As the terno’s look is shaped by eager designers, its symbol and value as a Filipino icon shape shifts but endures.