The principalia were the class of elite native municipal leaders who worked in conjunction with and on behalf of the Spanish colonial government. Their wealth, reputation and influence afforded them formal dignities and privileges from the Spanish crown. Some of these privileges included the right to be addressed as Don or Doña (a recognition of noble standing), the ability to sit on provincial advisory councils, receiving economic preferences, and an exemption from taxes. In return, they often had to collect taxes and supervise the operation of municipal government functions, like managing post offices, jails and public infrastructure.
As we’ve written previously, the principalia were often educated in Europe and were usually amongst the first to adopt clothing and fashion from Europe. Also, Spaniards wore the Barong Tagalog because it was practical and comfortable in tropical weather.
When Sinibaldo de Mas (the Spanish diplomat to Asia in the 19th Century) got to the Philippines and saw natives, mestizos and Spaniards dressing alike with no class distinctions, he called for a dress code to distinguish people. Shortly after, in the mid-19th century, an edict was passed specifying that natives and mestizos were to be distinguishable by wearing loose shirts outside the trousers and salakots (helmet-like native hats), Spaniards were the only ones allowed to wear neckerchiefs, and the principalia were given special privilege to wear short jackets over their shirts.
In the mid to late 19th century, principales (members of the principalia class) often dressed in flashy, opulent, exaggerated and impractical styles to make their class status obvious.
Caption “Gobernadorcillo de una Cabecera”. This man of the principalia class wears a Barong Tagalog underneath his short black jacket, striped slacks, leather shoes, a European hat, and he carries a cane adorned with precious metals. This photo is likely from the late 19th century.