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Terno of the century

The terno as a dress, as a book, and as a party—this article is about one thing, incarnated in three different dimensions. So significant is this piece of clothing, a garment that both transcends and embodies the very meaning of fashion, that 300 pages of coffee-table-book material can be devoted to it, a glittering party can be thrown in honor of it, and a modern woman of today’s times would need to transform herself, even for just a few hours, in order to wear it.

Most Filipinas nowadays no longer wear nor own the terno. In the public consciousness, it is seen prominently only once a year—at the State of the Nation address at Congress. It is an endangered species, a rare butterfly. And just as ardently as conservationists have put out every effort to save the Philippine eagle, our national bird, from extinction, so have three men—Ben Chan, Gino Gonzales, and Mark Lewis Higgins—endeavored to rescue the terno, our national dress, from total oblivion.

Fashionable Filipinas—the latest book offering published by fashion magnate Ben Chan, and written and edited by acclaimed set designer/scenographer Gino Gonzales and Slim’s Fashion & Arts School co-director Mark Higgins—is a must-have, a must-own, and a must-pass-on-to-future-generations sort of book. It maps out the evolution of the Philippine national dress from the years 1860 to 1960—that’s 100 years of photographs, illustrations, explanations, and anecdotes. The parenthetical years are curious choices. Eighteen-sixty, because this was the time that photography began to flourish in popularity, before which depictions of national dress could only be found in oil paintings. Nineteen-sixty, because this year marks what one could consider the fading point of the terno’s evolution, when it could no longer be further simplified or restructured and its basic silhouette remains as it is today. What is most fascinating about this is that the 1960s also marked a critical point of women’s liberation, when the radical feminist movement reached its apex in the West. Surely, in that time of bra-burning and acid-tripping, the terno’s constricting butterfly sleeves would find themselves flitting away to insignificance in any liberated woman’s wardrobe.

Leafing through the book is a journey through time, through space, through history, through genetic memory, through soul and spirit. It will touch the heart. Though it is well-researched, academically sound, and brilliantly edited, the book has an emotional resonance that one would usually find in a piece of fine literature. Yes, it is that good. The emotions might come from the realization that we women really do take many of our current liberties for granted, freedoms our grandmothers and great-grandmothers never even imagined or dreamed of. Or they might come from the symbolic details of femininity that are sorely missed in today’s interactions: delicate embroidered handkerchiefs, perfumed abanicos, stockings, peinetas, all of which capture a feminine essence that transcends both feminism and fashion, yet does not conflict with them. The book will make you ask questions about your own womanhood, your own femininity, how you express it, how you hope to cherish it, how you would wish future generations of women to understand it. It is about the 100-year journey of the Filipina woman, but it is also very much about your own journey as a woman. Perhaps one could attribute the demise of the terno to something political—it became too closely identified with former First Lady Imelda Marcos, who wore it like a uniform, and who arguably wore it best. But the only way one could attribute its resurrection is to something personal—as something that’s part of one’s personal identity, one’s pride, one’s amor propio.

On the evening of the November launch of the book Fashionable Filipinas, scores of women from Philippine society, fashion, show business, and arts & culture, trooped to The Peninsula Manila in their terno, escorted by men in their formal barong Tagalog, resulting in a splash of color, fabric, and texture so rarely seen nowadays in the Manila scene that it was not just a sight to behold but a visceral experience to truly remember. There was a touch of Gatsby to it.

Interestingly, host Ben Chan chose the Jazz Age decade of the 1930s as the theme of the party—the book’s cover shows a woman wearing a flapper-influenced terno—and so Art Deco details were prevalent in Gino Gonzales’s stunning set design and all over the Rigodon Ballroom. There was a big band that played jazz all night, with a special appearance of the legendary Pilita Corrales still in top form at age 78. It was the ephemeral quality of the event that made it so memorable and gave it a dreamlike feeling. One could only surmise that it was because wearing a terno makes a woman feel that she is part of an ancestral continuity, as though the ghosts of her maternal ancestors suddenly come alive through her as she dons the dress; it triggers something in the DNA, an archetypal memory of what the Filipina woman has gone through and endured. It makes the lady who is wearing it appear mythical, even cinematic.

Top Filipino fashion designers arrived in full force that night, surrounded by the ladies wearing their creations, and it falls upon their shoulders as well to keep the legacy of the terno alive. After all, the book was conceived as a contribution to fashion education in the Philippines, and copies of the book were donated to the Ayala Foundation and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, so that it can reach as many Filipino students as possible. As Ben Chan said in his speech, “Twelve years ago, Bench successfully presented the Terno Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Manila to celebrate the beautiful design of this Philippine national dress. It was also a tribute to my dearest friend, Joe Salazar, one of the greatest Filipino couturiers, who died a few months after. I am remembering him again tonight because he was a master of the terno gown, and I believe that Filipino talent can achieve the highest levels of mastery if we properly support it.”

A deeply moving detail of the event was found at the entrance of the ballroom. There was a wooden mold of the terno sleeve perched on a pedestal, and a card that said, “Bequest of Joe Salazar to JC Buendia,” and a backdrop that read, “In loving memory of Joe Salazar, who dressed many fashionable Filipinas.” Such a gesture is testament to Salazar’s greatness and generosity of spirit as an artist and as a person. Any fashion designer will tell you how difficult it is to sculpt the terno sleeve so that it rests perfectly on the shoulder and does not wrinkle or fold when worn. Salazar, trained as an architect and one of Imelda Marcos’s favored couturiers, devised an ingenious solution by having a mold of the sleeve carved. He bequeathed it to JC Buendia before he died in 2004, because at that time Buendia was the favored couturier of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Now that it is the true spirit of the terno. It is the spirit of ingenuity, of reverence, of decency, of continuity, of tradition, of greatness, of passing on. Ben Chan, Gino Gonzales, and Mark Lewis Higgins have done their part. It is up to the rest of us to do the same.Read more at:graduation gowns | 2015 prom dresses

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