What does it mean to be Filipino? Celebrating Filipino Heritage Month Through Our Clothing and Textiles

What does it mean to be Filipino? Celebrating Filipino Heritage Month Through Our Clothing and Textiles

With Philippine Independence Day upon us and Filipino Heritage Month being celebrated for the first time in Toronto, we couldn’t help but reflect on the meaning behind these days and the heritage we’re celebrating.

Philippine history is rife with conflict and struggle. Before we were colonized by Spain, the US, and occupied by Japan, the Philippines was deeply influenced by the Chinese, the Indians, Indo-Malays, and Mexicans. Our entire history and culture is built on a mix and meld of others.  

So if fusion is in our blood, what does it really mean to be Filipino and to celebrate Filipino heritage?

Because of Cambio & Co.’s work with indigenous artisans and ethical fashion brands in the Philippines, naturally I evaluate these questions through the clothes we wear. What exactly does it mean for fashion, clothing, and our garments to be Filipino?

To answer the question, we paid a visit to the Textile Museum of Canada, a small museum in the heart of downtown Toronto which boasts a small but well-curated lineup of textile exhibits. We were accompanied by our long-time supporter and friend of Cambio, Lynne Milgram, a researcher and professor of anthropology at OCAD University. She’s dedicated the last 30 years of her career into researching livelihood development and economic empowerment of informal labourers in the Philippines, much of which has brought her into the world of Philippine textiles and weaving.

She graciously offered to host a private tour for us at the museum, and of course we jumped at the opportunity!


Lynne Milgram, Gelaine Santiago, Jérôme Gagnon-VoyerLynne Milgram, Gelaine & Jérôme


Visiting the Textile Museum of Canada

We met with Lynne in the lobby, a small space downstairs from the museum. She’s a bundle of energy, bouncing with excitement as she greets us. She’s carrying her Vela Manila Dalisay Bayong Tote which she purchased from us a few months back, and gushes that it’s now her favourite bag.

She leads us upstairs to view the collection of Philippine textiles at the museum. We pass several employees along the way, many of whom had garments of various sizes and colours from all corners of the world laid out carefully in front of them, their magnifying glasses in hand.  I felt a little like Indiana Jones after he’s come back from an adventure, retreating into his lab to verify the treasures he’s obtained.

“It’s nice to meet you,” we’re greeted by Roxane, the Collections Manager of the museum. On Lynne’s request, Roxane has pulled out a variety of textiles from all over the Philippines in anticipation of our visit. Some of the textiles in front of us were hundreds of years old, spanning back to pre-colonial times, and came from various regions of the Philippines.  We were instructed to put on our gloves and avoid flash photography to preserve the integrity of the cloths. It all felt very sacred.

Going into our visit at the textile museum, Jérôme and I knew that Philippine weaves were diverse. There were different colours, patterns, methods, and fabrics of weaves, and every community had their own unique spin. But our knowledge barely skimmed the surface.

Cultural Influences On Filipino Textiles

One thing we really didn’t realize is just how much colonialism and outside trade influenced customs and cultures in the Philippines. This is true with our food down to the clothes we wear.

Referring to a beautiful shawl from Panay Island in the Visayas, Lynne recounted the history of embroidery in the Philippines. In the 1600s during Spanish rule, lace was a big thing. The Spanish wanted to create products to compete with European lace, so they heavily promoted embroidery in the colonial parts of the Philippines to export and sell them in Europe.

Beautiful shaw with embroidery from Panay Island, Visayas
Beautiful shawl with embroidery from Panay Island, Visayas

Embroidery had existed in the Philippines long before Spanish rule, but the Spaniards were responsible for its commercialization. They brought in Chinese and Indian workers as embroiderers, and operated numerous embroidery schools run by nuns. Embroidery was promoted amongst the upper classes as a ‘proper’ pastime for refined women, creating a strong culture and demand for embroidery. To this day, you can find communities in southern Luzon and central Philippines who specialize in embroidery.

The other thing that was interesting were the patterns and designs themselves as a result of outside influence. Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines, has a significant Muslim population as a result of the arrival of Arab traders as early as the 10th century. Despite years of war, Spain was unsuccessful in its attempt to conquer and convert all of Mindanao to Christianity due to resistance from the Moro peoples. Since Mindanao was mostly Muslim, there are no figurative motifs on any of their clothing and textiles, unlike other regions of the Philippines.  That’s also why embroidery never became very big in Mindanao. The Spaniards were never able to effectively rule the region, hence it never became widespread in the same way.

Bungasama weave from Yakan people and Malong that uses the Ikat technique(Left) Bungasama weave from the Yakan people next to (Right) a Malong using Ikat dyeing technique. Both from Mindanao

While centuries of trade and colonial influence have shaped the Philippines, there are things that have remained distinctive to our indigenous and pre-colonial traditions. There’s a widely held misconception that the Barong Tagalog, the national garment of the Philippines made of a delicate pineapple fibre, was introduced by the Spanish as a form of oppression. However, the barong actually existed long before the Spanish arrived. It was worn by Tagalog natives on the island of Luzon in northern Philippines even before the country was called ‘the Philippines’, and it continues to be a strong symbol of Filipino culture. There’s a reason we continue to wear the barong during our most important occasions.

The Struggle Between Past and Present

One of the most interesting things we discussed during our visit is the struggle between tradition and modernization. Looking at the garments laid out in front of us, it was interesting to see how the textiles and techniques themselves changed over time.

I asked Lynne and Roxane what they think about social enterprises who enter artisan communities and ask the weavers to change the colours and patterns they use, in an attempt to ‘modernize’ their textiles.

Lynne had an interesting perspective. “At the end of the day, these communities must survive and create goods that are commercially viable. Who are we to deny them a livelihood? The challenges is how to make a piece that speaks of your heritage at the same time that it appeals to the market.

Roxane brought forward the example of an artisan community who had begun learning a new skill of hook rugging. They had learned it from a foreigner who taught the women how to do hook rugging as a form of livelihood. “It wasn’t a traditional art form for them, but they began creating their own colours and patterns  to sell at local markets, and the pieces began flying off the shelves and the women could support themselves. Now there are multiple communities in Guatemala making these type of products, though it’s not traditional.”

“We also can’t discount that innovation can come from the communities and artisans themselves,” Lynne added.

“As long as you are valuing the people behind the products, not erasing their culture in the process, and educating others about the identity of the people who have formed it, then you can see it as a form of economic empowerment,” Roxane said.

Ifuagao Burial Blanket
Pictured here is an Ifugao burial blanket. While we try to combine traditional weaves with contemporary designs, it's important to respect the culture of the communities behind them. Cultural pieces such as ceremonial or religious textiles should never be used for other purposes.

So this got me thinking. What we may consider to be ‘authentic’ is not necessarily traditional, as traditions themselves are subject to change and adaptation. After all, the traditions that exist today are the product of centuries of outside influence, mixing, and global trade.

If this is the case, is there such a thing as ‘authentic’ if our culture is based on a fusion of other cultures? What does it mean to be authentically Filipino?

Creating our own distinct culture

I think of the young brands we work in the Philippines; social enterprises and ethical fashion brands like AKABA, Habin, and Nawa - all young brands trying to revitalize traditions and provide economic empowerment by fusing indigenous weaving with contemporary designs. I see the way our products fly off the shelves, adopted by Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike who fall in love with the unique patterns and materials.

Pis Syabit Laptop case from AKABA next to traditional Pis Syabit textile
Pis Syabit laptop case from AKABA next to an ancient Pis Syabit textile

I also see the way our partners have painstakingly built their designs around the weaves and fabrics themselves, rather than the other way around. Products like our Lago Satchel and Malia Tote may not be considered ‘traditional’, for example, but they are definitely Filipino.

The Apuesto Backpack from AKABA uses the Indigenous Ramit weaves from Oriental Mindoro

As Filipinos, we are survivors. We are adopters. We are resilient and strong and insanely creative. Filipinos are now the third largest asian immigrant community in Canada, and Tagalog is the fastest growing language group in the nation. We have reached every corner of the world, adapted to our local environment, started new families while supporting our old ones, and made lasting impact in our communities.

In the same way our clothes have shifted as a result of time and space, our culture has, too. Yet Filipinos have always managed to create a space of our own wherever we go, changing form to fit our locale while creating something that is always distinctly Filipino.

Multiculturalism and adaptation is in our blood, and also in our clothes.

And that’s a heritage worth celebrating.

Happy Philippine Independence Day and Filipino Heritage Month!

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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