The Barong


The barong has its appearance with more formal occasions, for example with weddings, court proceedings or the national-holiday, and comes then as an eye catcher into the western observer's  field of view. Maybe that the western observer is thinking: 

... Somewhat strange this shirt, that reminds of the transparency and grace of a too short  negligee .... And why the shirttails are not tucked into the trousers? …

Then he is getting the information: It is the national dress of the Filipinos. And with that we are right in the topic.

Already before the arrival of the Spaniards the barong has developed out from Chinese, Malaysian and Hindu clothing-traditions. It was not imposed to the population of the Filipinos within a short time – as described very often – , because it was already too expensive for the man in the street.  The Spaniards have only promoted and sometimes demanded the barong with regard to their Philippine servants because it served as social demarcation-characteristic and offered also others „advantages“. Because it is tucked under the waistband, does not show any bags and is furthermore slightly transparent, no arms or other properties could be hidden under it. This is the anti-colonial interpretation. The fact however, why  the barong remains outside the trousers, can  be explained much more simply. The air in a tropic climate circulates better. Concerning the lack of bags, some mockers on the Philippines are pretending, that the Filipinos at that time have been too poor for bags. The absence of the bags can also be connected with a lack of tensile strength and a hanging down caused by the delicacy of the material. 

First the barong was a symbol of humiliation and suppression. However, later in the 19th century the symbol was reinterpreted by the middle classes - especially by the “illustrados”  -  into a symbol of  national independence and national pride. Simultaneously the barong was revalued by   embroideries and a ruffled collar. The first Philippine presidents wore always  a barong in case of their appointments and in case of state ceremonies. Ferdinand Marcos was a strong advocate of the Barong and proclaimed it as the national-clothing and service clothing of government-employees per decree. It was president Ramos, who could convince 1996  at the APEC-Conference his colleagues including the US president Clinton to wear a barong. Ex-president Estrada almost always wore a barong. The author knows no pictures showing him with classic suit, shirt, collar and tie. Small annotation: The „bags“ of  Mr. Marcos and  Mr. Estrada are  still searched by government-commissions.

If you should decide to buy a barong – the Philippine government promotes the export of barongs -,  you should know that barongs can be classified according  to the following features:   

    type of  cut                           kind of fiber

    the primary color               and the presence of embroideries  

With regard to the cut, there are Barongs full- and half-open. Most have a classic pointed-collar, side-slits and cuffs. Historic round-collars are seldom. They can have long and short arms.  “Polo Barongs” with short arms and made of cotton  without embroideries have become very popular  in the last decades among younger people. They are not so ceremonial and formal.  

As in earlier times the import of silk was forbidden, the cloth of the classic, historical  Barong was woven only from pineapple-fibers („Pinya Barong“) – especially in the province of Aklan.  Fibers are removed from the leaves of a wild pineapple-plant, that grows in the western Visayas. Out of the leaves in arduous handiwork fibers are pulled and sun dried. Each fiber is separated and knotted to another end of another fiber in a slow painstaking process.  The stands are woven to cloth-tracks of approximately 70 cm width. There is often a thread break because of the tenderness of the fibers, that requires a nerve-racking re-knotting. A hand-weaver produces  approximately 40 centimeters per day working ten hours. The cloth-weaving of one “Pinya-Barong” – so  a report – requires approximately two weeks. Decades ago the number of weavers decreased. Today a better training is offered. There have been attempts of  higher mechanizing  of weaving, but these efforts of modernization failed up to now.  In the late nineties, only approximately 35.000 meters pure Pinya-cloth have been produced on the Philippines annually. The low cloth-production makes “Pinya Barongs” extremely expensive. The „Pinya Barong “is considered as luxurious and has the finest tissue.

Now, silk has similar product-qualities. It is also soft, sleek and white in color. Therefore, from 1986 on pineapple-fiber-threads have been interweaved with cheaper silk-threads. The mixed fabric has the name „Pinya Seda “. Frequently, such a cloth consists of sixty percent pineapple-threads and 40 percent silken-threads. A hand-weaver now can produce four times more cloth, approximately up to two meters per day. „Pinya Seda “ lies round about 25 percent under the price of a pure pinya-cloth.  In the year 1999, over 83.000 meters of this mixed  fabric were already produced.

The fibers of the abaca-plant (Manila hemp/banana-hemp) - a banana-subtype with more peaked leaves - can also serve as textile-raw material. After the fibers are pulled out of the leaves, they are dried under the sun and receive so their white color. The one to three meters long fibers are sorted according to size and then they become knotted and twisted together. Now the manual weaving starts. The abaca-threads can be woven exclusively to cloth (“Abaca Pinukpok”). If cotton is added we speak from “Abaca cotton” and if silk threats are still added from “Abaca-Cotton-Silk”. A Barong, which contains abaca-threads as main-component, is called "Jusi-Barong".  Especially the Jusi-Barong must be washed carefully. It tolerates no rubbing, wringing or a machine-wash.  

In addition the ramie stem fiber, obtained from the bark of a up to two meters high sting nettle plant, can deliver the raw material.  The fibers of the plant – also known as China-grass –  are tear proof, soft, similar to silk and up to 25 cm long. This raw material is far cheaper as  pineapple-fibers. The exclusive or partial use of cotton was already mentioned.

The primary color of a Barong is transparent silvery-white, the color of the white undershirt often remains recognizable. The basic color can be modified with natural dyes. The following shades are offered for example: yellow, beige, pink, lavender-blue, brown, brightly-blue, black, orange or golden. The shades can be mixed and can show different degrees of intensity. Dyes can be extracted for example, from the root of ginger-plant, the bark of sapang tree , the leaves of talisay-tree or the seeds of atchuete-plant.     

The embroideries  can be made by hand or produced by machine. Pineapple, silk or cotton threads are used. Handcrafted embroideries are more expensive, because they need a lot of work. so a high-quality barong embroidered gorgeously on the front side, rear side  and sleeves can cost four hundred dollars and more. The knitting pattern can be multicolored, geometrically-abstract (dices, squares, triangles, lines etc.) or figurative. In former times there was a preference for blooms and leaves, dance-figures or fighting cocks, today it can also the well developed body of a Macho or a Red Indian. Half-opened barongs often have an U-shaped embroidery on the forefront („Pelaez-Style“). The designs of embroideries  are frequently standardized. Even though there are also embroidery-designers, which can convert your idea – for example your favorite-singer in a flower-decor made from silver- and gold-threads. 

Internet-offers of barongs start at a price from 80 dollar. The most informative side about barongs can be reached under the following address:

© Wolfgang Bethge