Skip to main content
Illustration of a light-skinned young woman wearing a bright blue dress with gold embroidery and tall pointed sleeves, looking into a mirror toward a brown-skinned elder woman wearing the same dress.

Reflections on my great-lola’s terno

Artwork by Maren Stossel

  • Stories from My Great-Lola’s Terno: A History of Family, Fashion, and the Philippines

    I have broader shoulders than my great-grandmother, Erlinda. I have her height. This I learned, twenty years after her death, when my Tita Linda handed me a black plastic bag. Inside was a new Tagalog word: terno.

    As I grew up, my grandmother on my father’s side would remind me, “I am your lola.” She ingrained this so deeply within me that it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized not everyone has a “grandmother” on their mother’s side and a “lola” on their father’s. My great aunts are my titas. That had been the extent of my Tagalog.

    But inside the black plastic bag was a terno: a traditional Filipiniana dress, made for my great-grandmother. Inside were butterfly sleeves, standing tall from the shoulders. Inside was my Filipina heritage.

    A Filipina mother and white father pose with five of their children, all in formal wear. Old color photograph.
    In their bowtie and terno, my great-grandfather and great-lola prepare for a ball, posing with five of their seven children. My lola is the furthest to the left.
    Photo courtesy of Linda Coakley

    And it wasn’t until I saw my great-grandmother’s blue butterfly sleeves mirrored on my own shoulders that it occurred to me, as the second generation growing up outside of the Philippines, to ask what it means to have a lola.

    How did we get here? How did we get to butterfly sleeves on my shoulders? How did we get to the dress, the terno, defined by those very sleeves?

    I couldn’t ask my great-lola, so I asked her dress.

    The history of the terno is the history of Filipina fashion, the Philippines, and an ever-shifting diaspora. The dress continues to be worn and reimagined, just as it was hundreds of years ago, when Spanish colonial fashion began to shape Indigenous Filipino dress into the terno we know today.

    How Did We Get Here?

    Oh, cover it up,” Nicole Angeline summarizes Spanish colonial policy as they grasped for control of the Philippine islands and everyone on them—including women and their bodies. “And that’s how eventually [the dress] became the terno.”

    Angeline, a Filipina American sewist, began looking into not only how to create the terno but also its history. “The terno evolved from several iterations of Spanish missionaries thinking that Indigenous Filipina women were immodest,” Angeline explains.

    During colonial rule, Indigenous and Spanish styles fused into the baro’t saya. The name alone combines the Tagalog blouse (baro) and Spanish skirt (saya). Continually modified by shifting fashion trends and new Spanish terminology, this earliest influence on the terno survives to this day as the national dress of the Philippines.

    Over centuries, the sleeves of Filipiniana garments grew in size, but they did not become tall and pleated, flat against the shoulders, and the defining feature of the terno, until a new colonial oppressor took power: the United States. Under American occupation during the first half of the twentieth century, the skirt slimmed, the blouse and skirt merged into a single dress, and Filipina women’s shoulders began to flutter with butterfly sleeves.

    “I find the history between the U.S. and the Philippines to be intriguing or sad, yet we cannot be who we are today without that legacy of colonialism,” Angeline says. She considers it important to look “at history in its totality and [understand] some things are bad and—not ‘but,’ and—things evolve from that that can be good.”

    A (Very Brief) Timeline of the Terno
    Illustration of a dark-skinned man and lighter-skinned woman in red tunic and dress, with a border of green plants and animals.
    When tracing the history of the terno, we begin in the Boxer Codex. Inside, the colored illustrations of those living around the Philippine archipelago can take us back to the sixteenth century, when Indigenous and Spanish fashions merged into the baro’t saya in response to Spanish colonial ideas of “modesty.” Indigenous Filipinos already had the blouse (baro) and wrap skirt (tapis) and called anything wrapped around the shoulders or over the head an alampay.
    Wikimedia Commons
    Illustration of a woman wearing a red and white striped, long-sleeve blouse, a white lacey shawl, long black skirt with red trim, and holding a green handkerchief. Below her, in calligraphy, La Mestisa.
    As the Spanish began to modify and rename, the Tagalog word for blouse, baro, was interchanged with the Spanish word camisa. The alampay was swapped out for the Spanish panuelo, which became understood as a kerchief draped around the soldiers, often intricately patterned. The panuelo was a requirement for modesty alongside the Spanish skirt, or saya, an underlayer of the tapis. Filipino painter Justiniano Asunción created this watercolor in 1841 of La Mestisa, or a “mixed” woman with Filipino and other ancestries, reflected in her clothing.
    Wikimedia Commons
    Old black-and-white photograph of five Filipino women and a man, posing in formal wear. The women wear voluminous skirts and intricately designed shawls.
    The “mixed dress” of Spanish and Filipino influences was referred to as just that: the traje de mestiza. By the time this photo was taken in 1870, the dress was trying on other fashion trends, with wider, bell-shaped skirts.
    Biblioteca Digital Hispánica
    Old black-and-white photograph of a Filipina woman posing in a white blouse and shawl and long, dark striped skirt.
    In this photograph taken ca. 1880s, Leonor Rivera wears the dress whose later’s iterations’ name she would inspire. After all, she inspired the devoutly Catholic Maria Clara, heroine and model of virtue in Dr. José Rizal’s 1887 Noli Me Tángere. A novel that bubbles with the injustices inflicted on the Filipino people by colonial Spain and the Catholic Church, as Filipinos fought for their independence, the dress took on another name: Maria Clara.
    Wikimedia Commons
    Old black-and-white photograph of a Filipina woman posing in a white dress with extremely wide sleeves, each about the width of her torso.
    This photograph was taken in 1899, a year after the Spanish-American War forced the Philippines under a new colonial power: the United States. Under American occupation, the dress slimmed its silhouette and enlarged its sleeves in response to contemporary styles.
    Wikimedia Commons
    Tinted photograph of a Filipino man and woman in wedding garb. Her white dress includes tall, wide, translucent sleeves.
    When Nicole Angeline’s Grandpa Teofilo and Grandma Veronica married in the Philippines on May 26, 1952, her grandmother wore the flat pleated sleeves of the terno as we know it today.
    Photo courtesy of Nicole Angeline

    As Spain first dug their colonial roots in the sixteenth century, Spanish Friar Pedro Bautista, captivated by the steaming waters of the springs heated by Mount Makiling and their purported curative effects, built public baths. He claimed them as Spain’s under the name of Los Baños—the bathing places. In the twentieth century, my great-great-lola Jovita opened a bakery in Manila named after where she grew up: Los Baños.

    Lola Jovita would pull from the oven pandesal, pan de limón, ensaïmada—bread of salt, bread of lemon, pork lard—each bearing a Spanish or Catalan name baked into a uniquely Filipino treat.

    A Filipina woman and white man pose in party attire: a solid-color A-line dress and white dress shirt and slacks with bowtie.
    My great-grandfather and great-lola prepare for a company ball.
    Photo courtesy of Linda Coakley

    She would sell these pastries to a frequent visitor: Richard Zautner. An American soldier in the engineer corps, he was reassigned to the Philippines as the country’s second colonial oppressor resumed its military presence at the end of World War II. Tasked with purchasing the food for his company, he was charmed by my great-lola Erlinda as she sold ensaïmadas in the butter-tinged air of her mother’s bakery. Lola Erlinda agreed to a date with him. In a testament to her reciprocated affection, she later gifted him a monkey.

    When he asked her mother if he could marry her daughter, she said, “Only if you stay here, not go back to the States,” according to Tita Linda. “Because then she would be missing her daughter and missing her grandchildren that were to come.”

    Richard Zautner left the military. He moved indefinitely to Manila. He built a house for Erlinda Constancia Bonifacio and their seven children.

    Lola Ruth, their second youngest, has passed down to me stories of dance, and Lola Erlinda a dress worn to those very dances, a dress sewn for the elegance of a ball, and a dress that stitched centuries of colonial rule into a garment undeniably Filipina.

    Do You Dance? The Terno and Tinikling

    Angeline’s first introduction to the terno was as a costume and without her current appreciation. “We would do different cultural dances as kids, and I hated it,” she says. “We would be forced to practice and then perform somewhere and then put on these weird clothes that have these huge sleeves, and that are bright colors.”

    For my family, it was the opposite. As Tita Linda, the eldest of the siblings, describes their childhood, she continuously returns to dance. Her lola would have them over at one of their tita’s houses for dance parties. “She loved to watch us dance. And dance we did—we just loved to dance. All of us.” They couldn’t even sit still in front of the television. When the commercials came on and the jingles started playing, “We’d get up, all seven of us, and start dancing.”

    Brightly colored illustration of people gathered, dancing and playing music outdoors. At center, a man and woman dance among two horizontal bamboo poles, controlled by people squatting at either end. Text at the bottom reads Merry Christmas.
    A postcard from my lola shows a man and woman dancing the folk dance the tinikling. They wear traditional dress: the men in barong tagalog, and the women in balintawak.
    Image courtesy of Delaney Marrs

    Lola Ruth pulls out a small postcard on the back of which, at some long-past point, my father has scrawled his name in child’s lettering. On it, a man and woman dance the tinikling, leaping in and out of two bamboo poles clicked together, amid greenery and smiling friends. Wearing two traditional styles of dress that often meet in dance, the male dancer places his arm behind his back in the buttoned up long-sleeve shirt of the barong tagalog, while the woman pinches the skirt of her orange balintawak dress. The more casual “country” sister of the terno, the balintawak is also recognized by its butterfly sleeves. However, it is paired with the alampay, a shawl draped over the shoulder, and the tapis, a wrap skirt.

    When my family gathered with the community for barrio fiestas, they would join the tinikling, either as dancers deftly navigating the poles clapped at their feet, or as those controlling the rhythm of the poles. In some origin stories, dancers mimic the tikling bird dodging bamboo traps set by rice farmers. In others, the farmer jumps to avoid the punishment of a Spanish colonizer attempting to clap their ankles. Alternate stories of playfulness and suffering, the terno likewise lays claim to neither one nor the other but reworks itself for the context it is called upon for.

    From the balintawak, associated with the leaps and clicks of the tinikling danced at neighborhood parties, to the deep blue dress detailed in gold beadwork my great-lola commissioned for a celebratory ball, the terno is as versatile as its butterfly sleeves are essential.

    Why Did You Leave the Philippines? My Family and the Terno’s Favor

    A list of words describing my lola next to her photo in her high school yearbook begins with “wild laughter” and ends in “tee-hee-hee!” She tells the stories of her childhood through bouts of laughter. “I had a fun childhood,” she says. “I think—for being grounded most of the time.” Again, she is laughing.

    Excerpt of a yearbook page, with two black-and-white portraits of a young woman with long, dark hair, and her name: Ruth Louise Zautner.
    My lola, looking mischievous as ever, in her senior yearbook photo.
    Image courtesy of Delaney Marrs

    Tita Linda, for all her own joking and spilling of family antics, our mouths watering over adobo, tells some darker stories. When her father built a house for his family, he set about constructing, as he had in the yard of each house before, a boat. But, unlike in previous yards, he also built a ten- to twelve-inch-thick adobe block wall set with cut glass.

    Originally emerging as an anti-Japanese guerilla army in the 1940s, the Huks reemerged in the 1960s. “Americans were primary targets for kidnapping,” Tita Linda explains, “so my dad was very protective of us.”

    In a time of political upheaval in the country, Tita Linda describes her father’s growing apprehension. “He said, ‘I can see the writing on the wall. We’re going to leave.’”

    My great-grandfather pulled from school their youngest child and moved the family to California. As they packed to leave, Lola Erlinda folded the butterfly sleeves of her terno into her luggage, bringing with her a piece of the country her mother had wanted to see her grandchildren raised in.

    It was not long after that the terno fell out of favor in the Philippines completely, leaving behind scrapbooks of slowly discoloring photographs of lolas wearing dresses their children were already forgetting the name for.

    Where Are You Going? Ternos for Today and Tomorrow

    “When I went to fashion school, there was very little discussion about the Filipino costume or what it is or how we relate to it,” says Philippines-based fashion designer Gabbie Sarenas. But in 2023, Sarenas was one of twelve designers whose balintawak designs processed down the runway in Manila.

    As Vogue Philippines discusses the terno’s return to “the mainstream” in recent years, they mention one event’s contributions: TernoCon. A biannual convention, TernoCon is a year-long process for the designers selected to participate. What the public sees are the results of lectures, workshops, and the oversight of the best mentors in the Philippines: ternos for today.

    Three people pose on a runway stage. The two on the sides wear white dresses with blue striped skirts, exaggerated sleeves, petticoats, and tall teased-out hair. The woman in the center, the designer, wears black turtleneck and pants with a translucent maroon blouse and white sash on top.
    Gabbie Sarenas (center) with her second-prize-winning designs at TernoCon 2023
    Photo by Jeremiah Villardo (@jeremiahvillardo)
    The same three women on the runway as the previous image, now turned and walking away, under an ornate, gold sign that reads TERNOCON.
    Gabbie Sarenas with her second-prize-winning designs at TernoCon 2023
    Photo by Jeremiah Villardo (@jeremiahvillardo)

    “TernoCon’s aim is to inspire and motivate emerging designers to create a Philippine dress that is consistent with its cultural roots but, at the same time, is readily able to meet the expectations and demands of the modern era,” explains participant and Manila-based designer Yssa Inumerable. “TernoCon did not simply teach us how to create ternos, but they also gave time and importance into the rich history of the Philippines dress. This, I believe, is a core value when looking to recreate the terno and, at the same time, retain its identity throughout history.”

    Having studied the garment’s history in preparation for TernoCon, Inumerable and Sarenas are conscious of the simultaneous interweaving and entangling contributing to the style.

    “I felt that the Filipino terno was beginning to lose its identity over time,” Inumerable says. Faced with this, she begins her design process with questions: “What does the Filipino identity mean? And is it possible to update the Filipiniana without losing its essence?”

    Sarenas, too, is challenged by the constant stripping back and reimagining of the dress in order to allow for its evolution. “The only thing remaining is the terno sleeve. We removed so much from it… I don’t even want to change it anymore because it’s the last remnant of a Filipino attire.” However, in history she finds an “anchor” for her work. “It adds more depth to your clothing,” she says. And ternos are nothing if not filled with depth—and detail.

    Malasakit: Sarenas shares the Tagalog word that inspires her. She attempts to translate a word that has no English equivalent, a sincere care and an attention to detail in malasakit sa detalye. “As Filipinos, we do things out of love,” Sarenas says.

    Love and detail are clear in Sarenas’s brand, in which hand-embroidering Filipino fibers such as piña and abaca are central to their collection Love Letter to the Philippines. What exactly is this love letter? “It’s always a respect and reverence to Filipino designs and Philippine culture,” she says. “It’s always my mantra. It’s always the thing I have in my head—especially when I get lost.”

    A woman on a runway wearing a pink blouse with enormous sleeves, embroidered with colorful flowers, a purple and pink wrap skirt, and a straw hat adorned with flowers and ribbon.
    Yssa Inumerable’s first-prize-winning design at TernoCon 2023
    Photo by Jeremiah Villardo (@jeremiahvillardo)
    Three people pose on a runway stage. The two on the sides wear multicolored ensembles of button-up shirts, blouses with high pointy sleeves, wrap skirts, and straw hats. The woman in the center wears a maroon pant suit with high pointy sleeves and a floral sash wrapped around her waist and one arm.
    Yssa Inumerable (center) with her first prize winning designs at TernoCon 2023.
    Photo by Jeremiah Villardo (@jeremiahvillardo)

    Yssa Studio also leans into detail and the communities that produce them, with a focus on local, sustainable materials and ethical practices. In one project, they used a handwoven textile created in the Northern Luzon province of Ilocos Sur. Another time they incorporated Burdang Taal, an embroidery sourced from Inumerable’s ancestral home in Batangas.

    “I support traditional craftsmanship to enhance the lives of our local community and promote Filipino artistry here in the Philippines and around the world,” Inumerable says.

    As Sarenas and Inumerable are at the forefront of a movement for a terno for tomorrow, they hope others will see in the dress not only the history but the future.

    “I hope the future generation of Filipino women find inspiration in my design and as a reminder of happier days ahead,” Inumerable says.

    Since TernoCon, many more terno fashion shows have followed. Sarenas describes how there was a time when cañamazo, a material used to make ternos, was sold out. “There were so many designers who wanted to buy that,” Sarenas says. “Plus, there was an influence globally.”

    “TernoCon is where this all really started,” Angeline says, explaining the inspiration she found across the ocean as she began sewing ternos. “I think I stumbled upon it on Instagram, and I was like, ‘This is gorgeous. These are amazing.’” A co-host of the Asian Sewist Collective podcast, Angeline then came across a fellow podcast creator’s YouTube video about the dress, an inspiration that made her think, “I think I can do this.”

    “[Sewing] was a hobby, but also I wanted to use it as a vehicle to explore other things, and one of those things was Filipino cultural dress,” Angeline says. “Putting together something that Imelda Marcos wore or even something that was born in the fifties and then just [replicating], that isn’t my personal taste or style. I want to be able to wear it and feel comfortable in it.” She wants to acknowledge the cultural garment, to understand its history, but also make it her own. As she shared in with Seamwork, she was used to seeing the terno represented by Eurocentric beauty standards valuing fair skin and slim bodies—but that didn’t represent her.

    “We come in all shapes and sizes,” Angeline emphasizes. “I think that the size inclusivity is something Filipinx Americans can really get going.”

    She wants to see the terno settle in among American fashion, describing how it “blew [her] mind” to see terno-inspired sleeves at the 2022 Met Gala carpet as Vanessa Hudgens paid homage to her Filipino ancestry. “It was really cool to see it worn and accepted as couture fashion.”

    Sarenas took notice when actress Ana Cruz Kayne walked the carpet for the Barbie film premier in 2023 wearing a pink terno made for the occasion.

    A young Filipina woman leans jauntily on a column indoors, wearing a suit of red and black floral fabric with pointed sleeves.
    Nicole Angeline wears the suit with terno sleeves she sewed and wore for the Filipino American Association of Carol Stream banquet in May 2024.
    Photo courtesy of Nicole Angeline

    In the month of May alone, Angeline wore the terno twice. First she attended a Filipino American event wearing a two-piece terno suit she had made. “That was such a beautiful celebration of the Filipino culture, and I didn’t have to explain to anyone anything,” she says. “I just showed up in my modern suit and got all the compliments, and everyone knew what it was, and they loved it.”

    When choosing an outfit for the second event, a predominately white nonprofit fundraising gala, she hesitated. “I’m still at the point in my life where if it’s not an Asian or Filipino event I have this hesitancy, because I don’t want to have to explain myself.”

    But as she got dressed on the day, her resolve strengthened: “I want to wear it. It’s beautiful. They can just deal with it,” she thought to herself. “I went into the event with that attitude, and it ended up being a really nice experience.”

    That isn’t to say it went flawlessly. She encountered unwarranted hands as some fellow attendees couldn’t resist feeling an unfamiliar sleeve. “Folks who I didn’t really know, all white-presenting folks, would say, ‘Oh my god, I love that, is it…?’ And then just kind of waited for me to explain what it was.” To her, it felt not like genuine curiosity but a fear in approaching “something that is different from what you know.” Reflecting on the experience, she explains, “It did feel like, for some folks that were there, I was almost like a museum exhibit or an oddity.” So Angeline has a simple request: “Just ask me questions, and also don’t touch me without my permission.”

    Even with the ups and downs of this event, Angeline is adamant: she would, and will, do it again. She will wear her needlework and her heritage and show an unfamiliar audience a dress that is thriving outside of a historical exhibit, and across countries. “I would like to see [the terno] more worn as just beautiful formal wear instead of beautiful Filipino formal wear for Asian or Filipino events.”

    As a Filipina American, Kendra Jucal no longer wears the terno but still feels its significance. She believes the terno sleeves are not just Filipino fashion—they’re powerful fashion. “I would compare them to eighties shoulder pads and how they represent feminine power,” she says. “Femininity is so often associated with softness, but the sharp silhouette is not gentle at all. They are defined, striking, and command the attention of any room.”

    Angeline reflects on the terno’s presence in her childhood: “I used to hate this. I used to think it was weird. Now I’m at the age where I want to rediscover and embrace that connection. I have never been more proud to be Filipina American than I am now.”

    Who Are You? The Terno as Identity

    Even as the terno and its variations are being reshaped for today, they are still remembered in the yellow-tinged photographs of our lolas.

    Inumerable took inspiration from her lola’s old photo albums. In them she found an image of her grandmother dressed in Filipiniana from the 1930s and the development of an identity and style as a designer rooted in Philippine history.

    A Filipino man and woman walk down a white carpet, wearing a dark suit and a turquoise dress with pointed sleeves, each with a bluish-white corsage.
    Nicole Angeline’s Lola Ebing at Angeline’s parents’ wedding in 1982: “She’s an immigrant from the Philippines, probably a U.S. citizen by then, but there’s still this really wonderful thread that runs from who she is as a person to her heritage as an Ilocano woman and then just existing as a modern woman in America. I think that’s really cool.”
    Photo courtesy of Nicole Angeline

    “The beauty of the terno is that the most distinctive thing is the sleeve. You can put a sleeve on any top,” Angeline says. One of her lolas, after immigrating to the United States, wore a terno to Angeline’s parents’ wedding—in a vibrant teal. “And so that jump suit is iconic to me—that it was so emblematic of the time yet paid homage to her heritage.”

    Even when dresses do not travel across years and miles, photographs do.

    Jucal has admired one photo of her grandmother her entire life. In it, she attends her high school graduation, and she is wearing a terno. “Whenever I see someone wear traditional clothing, I am always reminded of her poise, beauty, and brilliance.”

    She hasn’t worn a terno since she was a little girl, but in the traditional dress, she sees her Filipina heritage. In the terno, she feels pride.

    “It always brings me immense joy to see the Philippines represented,” Jucal says. “I hope one day we are more widely recognized, but I know that the world is aware because we are very, very, very loud and proud people.”

    I have yet to put on my great-lola’s terno for anything but a turn about the house, stiff skirt swishing around my ankles. My life has yet to call for a dress made for a ball, but the dress calls on the history of the country my family called home.

    The terno adapts for both casual picnic and formal affair. It swishes in the tinikling as bare feet between bamboo poles harken to a bird evading capture or farmer escaping punishment. It remembers the past while reimagining itself for an ever-changing present. It is Filipina.

    As I wear the dress, I realize it squeezes my shoulders less because they’re broad and more because it demands that I stand tall. The dress says what the great-lola I never met cannot: pull your shoulders back, and don’t forget where you came from.

    Inside a home, a woman with short dark hair poses wearing the blue dress with gold embroidery and pointed sleeves. On the wall above her hang a set of giant, decorative fork and spoon.
    My great-lola Erlinda wearing her terno
    Photo courtesy of Linda Coakley
    A young woman with long chestnut hair and glasses poses wearing the same blue dress, arms spread.
    Me wearing my great-lola Erlinda’s terno
    Photo by Seth Marrs

    Delaney Marrs is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a student at Kenyon College, where she is studying art history and English. What came to her as a dress in a plastic bag has deepened into a connection to the joys, struggles, and history of a Filipino heritage she has never been prouder of.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.