In what contexts do immigrants wear their native dress? For Filipina women, the most distinctive item of clothing is the terno—a dress or set of matching separates with a much extended, wing-like upper sleeve, as seen in the picture above. The terno emerged as an original design element evolving from dress codes imposed through Spanish colonialism. While many abandoned this style as old fashioned, Filipina women in the US have used it as a marker of their identity. Contributor Davrie Caro has sent a series of interesting images of older Filipino women from the 1960s to the late 1980s collected by the Los Angeles Public Library.
In the earliest photo, a club gathering at the horse races, none of the women wears anything approaching a terno style. Several of the younger women are quite stylishly dressed. Note the trimmed sheath dress in the front and the elegant outfit of the turbaned woman in the second row. It looks like it might have been chilly outside, making the wide sleeves difficult to wear under a sweater or coat. Although this is certainly a well-dressed group, no one is using clothes to announce their national identity.
However, in situations where it was important to show where they came from, Filipina women in Los Angeles often donned the terno. We can see this clearly in the picture above, where Filipina club members are meeting with other women at the Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. It is obviously a special occasion, and the Filipina women all wear ternos. To my eye, their outfits—in bright colors and elaborate sleeves—look much more festive than those of their Anglo counterparts.
Surely most formal occasion of all were contests among Filipinas themselves. The two beauty pageant winners depicted here both wear ternos, almost as if it were a requirement. Their outfits feature elaborate decorations and embroidery. Their hair and makeup are impeccable. Indeed Mrs. Fame, on the left, could be a stand in for Nancy Reagan, who embodied the power glamor look of the 1980s.
In these photos from the sixties to the eighties, the terno was a marker for festive wear, not at all something for everyday use. It was also an item of clothing associated most closely with older women.
However, in the Philippines and the diaspora today that is changing. Young designers are reclaiming the terno as a key element of their own unique national dress. Take a look at the beautiful designs here.