The Spanish-Influenced Filipino Terno Comes Back Into Fashion

Spain colonized the Philippines from 1565 to 1898, and over the course of this period, traditional Filipino women’s dress took on a curious new proportion: large, sculptural sleeves. Today, a long gown featuring a particularly high, stiff version of these distinct sleeves is most commonly referred to as a terno, and has come to be associated with the country’s independence. 

La Bulaquena by Juan Luna (1857-1899)

Prior to Spanish colonization, Filipina women dressed in light clothing appropriate for a tropical environment. However, this shocked conservative Spanish Catholic powers, who imposed a more covered style. Out of this came the baro’t saya, an outfit comprised of a long skirt covered by a tapis, or overskirt, on the bottom, and on top, a blouse with bell-shaped sleeves (which took inspiration from puffed, Victorian style sleeves then popular in Europe and the U.S.) and a starched, voluminous kerchief, known as a pañuelo, worn around the shoulders. A more formal version of this look, called both the traje de mestiza and the Maria Clara, eventually unified the four baro’t saya pieces into one. This came to be known as the terno. 

Imelda Marcos in 1984

In the 1940s, the person credited with popularizing the modern-day terno and its high butterfly sleeves was fashion designer Ramón Valera. Valera died in 1972 and for his enduring contribution to Philippine fashion, was posthumously awarded the honor of National Artist of the Philippines in 2006. In the 1970s and 1980s, the terno style then came to be closely associated with former First Lady Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, after she frequently wore formal terno gowns to events during her husband’s years in power. Marcos wore ternos so consistently she’s sometimes even incorrectly credited with inventing the look!

Today, however, the terno represents an increasingly democratic piece of Philippine fashion. Events like TernoCon challenge contemporary designers to both re-envision and keep the style going. You can find the sculpture-like butterfly sleeves that are the terno’s hallmark not just on formal gowns, but blouses and casual dresses. And designers making not just ternos, but all aspects of traditional Filipiniana dress, are creatively merging different eras of the country’s history by using Indigenous textiles within their pieces, for a total look that’s distinctly Filipino. 


Susannah Edelbaum is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, Germany, where she writes about travel, food, and culture, and resorts to making her favorite, impossible-to-find Filipino treat, pastillas de leche, in her home kitchen.