In 1975, President Ferdinand E. Marcos designated the Barong Tagalog as “the national attire” and issued a decree proclaiming Barong Tagalog Week (June 5 – 11). The presidential act was meant to” focus nation-wide attention on the Filipino national dress to wider use and enhance its export potential”. Its fine needlework or hand-painted designs in cool cotton or handwoven piña or jusi have given it a flair that has won international recognition and acceptance.
Barong is actually short for Barong Tagalog, which describes the formal men’s wear of the Philippines. It is properly referred to as the ‘Baro ng Tagalog’ (dress of the Tagalog). Contracting the first two words produces ‘Barong,’ which literally means ‘dress of.’ The Barong Tagalog was considered a dress, a garment, a coat in itself. It is not merely a ‘shirt’. If it were, then it would need a coat or a jacket over it to qualify as formal wear and would have to be worn tucked inside the trousers.
The earliest known fact about the Baro ng Tagalog was that before the Spaniards re-discovered the archipelago, the Tagalogs who lived in the island of Luzon wore baro which has evolved from pre-Hispanic native wear over the course of more than four centuries. Throughout its evolution, various factors have influenced the look of the Barong Tagalog, primarily the loose, long lines of the Chinese, airy tropical appearance of Indo-Malay costume, elongated effect of the Hindu dressing, and the ornamental restraint of European men’s clothing. For the most part, it has retained its essential look since it was first worn: round neck, straight long sleeves, mid thigh hemline and then modified with collar, cuffs and side slits.
In the 1700s, when the Spanish brought in their dressy shirt with standing collar, the use of the baro was confined to the Ilustrado (male members of family who owned landed estates and invested with some authority in the community). They were not allowed to tuck in the baro under waistband or have any pockets reminding the Indios that despite their wealth and power, they remained natives. They were also easily identifiable to the Spanish rulers. Another source that the baro was tucked out was for health reasons, the use of locally grown cloth made from pineapple or abaca fibers caused rashes and skin irritation. The country’s tropical climate also favored clothes that are tucked out just as in other nations in the Orient. Filipino household helps were also given “hand-me downs” by their foreign masters and since Filipinos were shorter and smaller in built, the baro simply looked better tucked out.
Today, the Filipinos (as well as non-Filipinos) continue to wear the Barong Tagalog with distinguishing acceptance world-wide. It is worn during weddings and formal occasions.
Alongside this trend, the baro turned informal with the introduction of the short-sleeved variety (made of cotton, Philippine ramie and later, in the seventies, of chiffonille called “polo Barong“, the baro turned informal. The polo Barong was so well received that it soon became the unofficial uniform of Filipinos who work, study and play. In other words, this shorter version became the all-around wear of Filipinos. It has been said that the polo Barong may as well be the present generation’s answer to yesteryear’s camisa de chino.