Americana vs. Camisa: The History of Filipino Men's Fashion
Our love affair with America was marked with long periods of loving and loathing. The turning point in our history, historians say, began with the inauguration of the Philippine Assembly in 1907, which saw Filipino participation in self-governance for the first time. Fear and initial distrust for these “damned Yanquis” slowly gave way to awe, admiration, and fond affection, especially when the policy of “benevolent assimilation,” which sounded so sincere to Filipinos, was introduced. That assimilation can be seen in how we live our lives, from our food to men's fashion.
Filipino Men's Fashion Evolution
Filipinos took to adapting the great American lifestyle and the term “Sajonista” (Saxonist) was used to describe with a sneer, these Americanized natives, the new “modernistas,” who took to their new Western ways like the proverbial duck to water.
Youngsters didn’t just infect their speech with an American twang but also adapted the men's fashion of “Modern Youth” and the “Young Generation.” They were “young ladies and gentlemen,” products of the public schools, who took to addressing each other with “Mister” or “Miss,” and sought to differentiate themselves from the common provincianos.
Names were the first to be updated to give them a cosmopolitan sound—so Francisco became “Frank,” Jose, “Joe,” and Lucia, “Lucy.” Filipino parents had a heyday naming their babies with American appellations—Henry, Mary Rose, Helen, Charles. The young lads and lasses who went to Manila for their schooling returned home to their towns in the latest men's fashion: smart drill suits, stylish frocks, hats worn askew, and thigh-high stockings, all copied from American style magazines.
Suiting Up and Fitting In
Indeed, it was from the 1920s to the early 1940s, that the peak of American impact—particularly in men's fashion—was most felt and seen. Even the Japanese, who displaced the Americans in the country during the war, were appalled not only at the pro-Americanism of the Filipino but at the magnitude of American influence absorbed by Filipino culture.
It is surprising to think that barely two decades earlier, young Filipino men’s fashion consisted of collarless camisas with a buttoned front, paired with drawstring pants that can easily be rolled up, for work purposes.
For more formal occasions, the sheer barong, woven from delicate jusi or piña fiber was worn untucked, matched with a pair of pantalon de fina lana. The versatile native wear, which was perfect for Philippine weather, was embellished with embroidery of the most wondrous variety. Mestizos and ilustrado dandies—favored European men's fashion, often incompatible with the tropical heat.
But such fashion was to change dramatically with the coming of our new masters, the Americans, who brought a whole cabinet of stylistic influences that would hasten and alter Philippine dressing tradition.
The American suit—or americana—became ubiquitous in urban city streets and in schools, where it became a standard piece of wardrobe for men in the 1920s.
Schoolboys began shedding their plain, long-sleeved, buttoned-up drill shirts with standing collars and began donning the classic white or black americana.
The suit had open, thin lapels and was worn over a close-necked collared shirt (hence the term, americana cerrada), with a tie. Men's fashion during that time featured the coat matched with high-waisted, slim-fit white trousers locally called “baston,” so-called because the pants tapered off at the knees and down to the ball of the ankles, showing off the socks. Trousers also began to be worn cuffed at the bottom.
Hat Tricks, Shoe Business
To add to the ‘imported American’ look, our dashing Filipino ‘palikero’ went out with the latest in men's fashion at that time: a straw boater hat—that had a flat top, a flat brim, and a black band around the crown. Filipinos from the middle to upper class, wore panama hats, fedoras, or bowler hats, while working people who spent much time outdoors wore native Western-style woven hats, replacing the sambalilos and salakots which were deemed too antiquated.
All sorts of hats and accessories could be sourced from the posh Sombreria Secher, an exclusive Gent’s Furnishing Store located at 131 Escolta that sold varias clases sombrero del pais y extranjero (various kinds of local and imported hats). Cheaper Philippine-made hats like the “balibuntal” from Lucban were also available at the pre-war Manila Hat Store along M.H. del Pilar.
Before he stepped out, the Filipino sajonista put on his sharp-pointed leather shoes, available in different styles—two-toned, cutaway, with ‘air conditioned’ feature—which could be bought from the world-class Ang Tibay Stores at Plaza Goiti, or at its Ilaya branch. Or he could opt to go to Escolta to check out the Esco Shoe Store where proper men’s shoes could be had from nine to 11 pesos a pair. There were many places to source men's fashion du jour.
For young, style-conscious gents, only primera clase (first class) suiting materials imported from Paris by leading Manila emporiums like La Puerta del Sol, Oriental Bazaar, and Osaka Bazaar in Echague were used. Of course, the city’s best master cutters and tailors were entrusted by discriminating Filipinos to create their suits, in their shops clustered along Rizal Avenue and Escolta.
German Adolfo Roensch Co. & Outfitters was an early haberdashery shop in Escolta that also sold men’s fashion accessories, including military uniforms. But local enterprising tailors—Kapampangans, Bulaqueños, and Chinese—also proved to be sartorial masters. Tailor Luis Liwanag from Bulacan was one such specialist in suit-making. He not only had an Avenida shop, but also ran a fashion academy (tailoring school) at the posh Crystal Arcade.
American shirts came also in different styles—some had winged collars that were starched, around which a tie was worn. The winged collar evolved from the Gladstone collar, named in honor of British statesman William Gladstone who popularized it. Filipino gents took to wearing winged collars to gala events as it gave them an air of class and distinction. Men's fashion during this period also featured detachable stiff collars that one could purchase. These were fashionable since the 1850s, but only caught on during American rule.
For the most formal affairs, however, the black tuxedo with coattails (swallow-tails) was de rigueur. This was matched with trousers trimmed with side satin ribbon strips and often worn with a vest and a black tie. Filipinos took liberties with this dressing protocol by wearing short black coats and bow-ties.
Turncoating on New Trends
Beginning in 1925, a new men's fashion craze swept the country with the “balloon pants” fad. Filipinos had already discarded the barong, and now the slim white pants were being replaced by the “balloon”—a pair of white, super-wide pants that flared at the bottom. Immediately, this fashion trend caused a major furor among nationalists, and self-proclaimed stylists.
In the July 23, 1927 issue of Graphic Magazine, an article derided the “balloon pants” as unfit for young Filipinos, who were generally short in stature. The loose, baggy “balloon,” the article contended, made Filipino men look even shorter.
By the 1930s, the Philippines was completely under the American spell. It is said that the boogie-woogie, jitterbugging kids of the Swing Era were probably the most Americanized generation of young Filipinos. An observant few were quick to lament the eradication of our values as Filipinos became enamored with the American dream, with Hollywood movies, the carnivals and cabarets, the cigarettes and the Scotch—providing the cheap thrills of youthful leisure.
The period was also notable for giving us new men's fashion trends. One of these is the double-breasted suit that had distinctive features: front crossover panels, peaked lapels, broad shoulders, and buttons galore—six of them! The distinguished suit was soon worn by Hollywood icons and royalties—including the Duke of Windsor who had his own four-button version. Matinee idol Rogelio de la Rosa and president Manuel Roxas cut such fine, aristocratic figures whenever they went to functions wearing double-breasted suits made of expensive sharkskin.
Another ‘30s men's fashion trend was the use of shoulder pads to create an impression of a larger, broader torso. The body acquired a square shape, and the peaked lapels framed the chest area. Sleeves were narrowed at the wrist. Padded suits worn with matching double-pleated, high-waisted pants reappeared in the late ‘40s through the early ‘50s.
A style associated with the Jazz Age was the so-called zoot suit—an extra-long and loose coat with wide lapels and exaggerated padded shoulders, paired with high-waisted, wide-legged pants that narrowed at the ankles. The look was popularized by jazz musicians—like our very own Borromeo Lou—through the '40s. Vertically challenged Filipinos stayed away from this style, but Latinos fell for the zoot’s appeal.
Gentlemen of Leisure
Through two decades, the americana had an all-purpose, all-weather quality and so was worn practically everywhere—during shopping trips, while attending the carnivals in Luneta, and in out-of-town excursions to Baguio. In the '20s and '30s, excluding sports uniforms, there were very few men’s fashion articles made expressedly for leisure.
Men ventured into the great outdoors in loose light-colored shirts, hardy khaki pants, and straw hats. Long and short-sleeved, multi-pocket loose shirts of khaki with wide collars were considered casual wear in the 1940s. Khaki gave these shirts a “military” feel, and eventually, the khaki would give way to light fabrics like cotton. By the 1950s, casual wear of this cut would have many versions—including the Hawaiian shirt, made attractive with printed resort island motifs.
Meanwhile, bathing suits were an offshoot of the sporting events introduced in the first decade of the 20th century by Americans, who were avid sports enthusiasts. The first Far East Games held in Manila in 1913 had male swimmers wearing the all-in-one woolen swimsuit in public, an abbreviated version of the first suit that first appeared in 1870 with long sleeves and legs.
By 1925, men’s fashion swimwear began to look similar to a wrestling singlet. This competition swimsuit found its way in men’s aparador, until it lost its top and became a pair of bathing trunks in the 1940s.
Cut and Trim
While clothes make the man, it is his well-trimmed, well-groomed hair that is his crowning glory. Men's fashion had to be complemented with style. The first decade of the 20th century had men wearing facial hair and slicked back hair. This trend continued into the next decade, with more Filipinos doing away with moustaches and beards, and going for a slick, straight back hair finished with brilliantine pomade, for maximum gloss. The cut was neat and clean around the ear and tapered down to nothing at the nape.
This look was immortalized by Hollywood romantic star Rudolph Valentino, Ramon Navarro, and Great Gatsby icon Fred Astaire, all of whom were soon imitated by starstruck young men. To pair with the latest men's fashion, they not only went for the full pin-straight slicked back hair, but added a part to one side or in the middle. The latter was resurrected by comedian Cachupoy in the '60s who briefly gave the style his name.
Men’s hairstyles in the 1930s strayed from the convention of the previous years, as Americans sported longish hair in front and on top, with shorter sides and fading in the back, plastered with creams and hair tonic. Hollywood was the main purveyor of this look in the islands led by Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Gary Cooper.
The war years paved the way for short-cropped, low maintenance, military cut hair. It was said that American soldiers sported high-and-tight crew cuts to control the spread of lice in their crowded quarters. Suddenly, the local Aguinaldo haircut that our first president was famous for came into vogue again.
The Japanese attempted to promote the revival and appreciation of Filipino cultural traditions (they encouraged speaking in Pilipino) as part of its policy of Asia for the Asians, but as soon as the war ended, Filipinos once more, went “stateside” in their sartorial and grooming taste.
Boys grew their hair longer, leading to the emergence of the pompadour, where hair is swept upwards and worn high over the forehead, with sides and back upswept. The result is high volume hair on the head reminiscent of Madame de Pompadour’s hairstyle. James Dean and his gang of greasers made the pompadour famous among fashionable men in midcentury Philippines.
What effects did sajonismo bring to the Filipino male and men's fashion in the Philippines?
Is the white "saxon" culture truly fit to be assimilated by brown-skinned Pinoys?
A 1929 article published in the Free Press paints a picture of a returning student educated and Americanized in Manila.
“Behold him as he struts along Main Street of his little town barrio, the cynosure of all eyes…a king in his own right, a sort of collegiate Caesar. The arbiter elegantiarium also, he is. …his clothes are studied, his shoes are studied, his hat and how he wears it—everything about him becomes the object of emulation and envy. Is it any wonder that, under the incense of such flattery, he feels himself a superior being, a conquering hero?”
The article ends with a call for understanding for the sajonista and his affectation of superiority complex. We paid him excessive hero worship, which he basked in—a very human thing to do. But it also left a reminder to this instant modernista—carpe diem—seize and enjoy the moment, for it will soon last. As it turned out, our love affair with America would last longer than most, and colonial mentality would continue to persist, even with the rise of nationalism in the 1950s, through the '70s and '80s.
We thought that would end when Pinatubo kicked out America from Clark with finality in 1991. The American absence cleared the air, giving us time and space to reflect on what colonial mentality has done to us, and what we have been missing all these years. But new media technology has also flung the door wide open for new men's fashion influences to come in: We fell for Taiwanese F4’s metrosexual, long-hair look, Japanese Harajuku street fashion, and the current K-Pop rage.
Our taste for fashion defines, not just our individuality, but also our collective cultural identity as one nation. But whether attired in traditional barong tagalog or dressed in Banlon polyesters, Armani suit, colorful animé fashions, knitted bonnets and skull caps, drop crotch pants, mismatched prints, neck scarves, or quirky Crocs—our menfolk can carry it all with confidence and aplomb, proof that when it comes to all-time men's fashion or porma, the Filipino is second to none.
All photos courtesy of the Alex D. Castro Collection.
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Joaquin, Nick. “Pop Culture: the American Years—The Filipino as Sajonista 1900s-1940s). vol. 10. Pp. 2732-2744. Published by PCPM, reprinted by Felta Press.
Sta. Maria, Felice. “The 1920s: When the Balloon Pants Came to Town”, Filipino Heritage, vol. 9. Pp. 2378-2380. Published by PCPM, reprinted by Felta Press.
McCoy, Alfred, Roces, Alfredo. Philippine Cartoons: Political Caricature of the American Era, 1900-41, Vera-Reyes (Manila), 1985
“A Suit of Clothes”, The Origin of Everyday Things, Reader’s Digest Association Ltd. © 1998. Pp. 128-129.
Wiesman, Luc. “THE MOST ICONIC MEN’S HAIRSTYLES IN HISTORY: 1920 – 1969”, 28 Mar, 2016.
Watkins, Ted. THE CREW CUT MEN’S HAIRCUT HISTORY