The pitfalls of reimagining the baro’t saya
Aspiring designers make a case for modernizing the Filipino dress, not so much the baro’t saya
May 31, 2018
Just when we thought the newly opened National Museum of Natural History can’t get any grander, the museum ups the ante by hosting the Balik Saya Fashion Design Competition to honor the baro’t saya.
The steps leading to the Tree of Life elevator were transformed into a runway filled with contemporary renditions of the national costume. All done in indigenous fabrics like jusi, piña, and inabel, 15 creations were presented as part of the competition
The brainchild of Manila 5th District Representative Cristal Bagatsing, the event gathered fashion designers Inno Sotto, Criselda Lontok, Lulu Tan-Gan, Rajo Laurel and Randy Ortiz to judge the creations alongside model-turned-photographer Jo-ann Bitagcol, Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez, SoFA Design Institute dean Tobias Guggenheimer, and former model and Project Runway Philippines host Tweetie de Leon-Gonzalez.
Five designers were picked by the judges, each to receiving a prize for their reinterpreted designs. A modernized version of the baro’t saya designed by Mariah Marella Parayray from St. Scholastica’s College took home the grand prize of P100,000 together and an apprenticeship with Rustan’s, as well a workshop from SoFa Design Institute.
Other designs were also given special awards from Rustan’s, Fashion+Arts+Business Creatives, and SoFa Design Institute.
Retaining the original baro’t saya design
The traditional structure of the baro’t saya consists of a blouse made from fine fabric made of piña, which has long and flowy, voluminous sleeves of the same material, and a skirt often made with opaque fabric made from sinamay varieties to contrast the top’s sheerness.
The design is usually accompanied by a square scarf-like alampay made from the same fabric as the saya to cover up some areas that may be too revealing and deemed to be against the Spanish sense of conservatism.
Some aspects, however, were amiss in several of the designs presented. For example, a few designers confused the baro’t saya for the terno that most of us are more familiar with and which actually evolved from the latter.
The designs presented latched on the terno‘s structured butterfly sleeves, which trace their origins from the 1940s, and is attributed to National Artist for Fashion Design Ramon Valera.
In an interview with Inquirer in 2015, Mark Higgins, co-director of the fashion school Slim’s and co-author of the book “Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs, 1860-1960,” emphasized the importance of the butterfly sleeves.
“Rather than reinvent the sleeve, go back and look at what else you can reinvent. It’s fine to make it a bare midriff or wear it with shorts, but the sleeves have to stay and not shrink any further.”
Co-author Gino Gonzales, an exhibition and costume designer, also had something to say about the contemporary designs of the classic baro’t saya in the same interview.
“Some young designers are merely imposing sleeves on a Western dress. The most horrifying part for me—and this is just my opinion—is that there’s a need for these designers to reinvent the sleeves, which is so unnecessary!” he told Inquirer at a Metropolitan Museum of Manila exhibition in 2003.
While the event had good intentions to honor the baro’t saya and reintroduce it to a new generation through contemporary designs, the fact that most of the dresses presented strayed from the original design misses the point entirely.
Photos Courtesy of Balik Saya Fashion Design Competition