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Journey of the Barong Tagalog, Precolonial Philippines Part 1: Origins of Clothing and Fabric

As we established in our last installment, the Barong Tagalog did not come from Spain. It’s important to put this misconception to rest. Believing the myth of the Spanish forcing the barong on the Tagalog people lends credence to the preposterous idea that precolonial Filipinos were savages without clothing. So just as civilization in the Philippines did not start with western culture, the barong should also not be thought of in western terms by comparing it to the shirt.

As we go through the history of the garment the Tagalog people wore to cover their torsos and below, keep in mind that the current day formal barong and national garment is a modern concept that is only about 65 years old. We cannot think of or see the barongs of the distant past through the lens of the modern barong. Over the course of about 1,000 years, the barong has greatly developed and evolved. It has picked up elements from garments of other cultures.

To track the origins of the barong, we must track the origins of clothing in the Philippines. Since there is a lack of surviving artifacts, this will be difficult. Goods made of cloth and plant products tend not to survive in the harsh tropical climate.

Archaeological finds show that the earliest cloth was made from tree bark. Our ancestors beat various types of tree bark into softer, wearable cloth with stone instruments. They then discovered that they could beat weeds and leaves to extract fibers. Afterwards, our ancestors learned that fabric could be woven from twisted fiber. Although details are sparse, scholars date cloth weaving in the Philippines as far back as 200 B.C. For finer weaving, the backstrap loom, as shown in this picture below, was developed in precolonial times and is still used today. When and by whom it was developed is hard to ascertain.

 

Indigenous Filipino woman weaving using a backstap loom

Ancient Luzon, where the Tagalog people lived, was known back then as Ma-yi or Ma’i. 13th & 14th century Chinese writers noted that people from the three major island groups - Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao - were all known to produce and wear cotton textiles and garments, which were woven.