Your terno's draggin’: Fashioning Filipino American performance

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In this essay, I explore the semiotics of the terno, the Philippine national dress, creatively interpreted by diasporic artists as a dense metaphor for the proper and improper Filipina. These artistic deployments of the terno lay bare unquestioned notions of Filipina femininity and nationalism to be fabrications of colonialism, militarization and globalization. The reconfigurations of the infamous “butterfly dress” by multimedia artist groups Barrionics and Mail Order Brides (M.O.B.) take center stage in my discussion. The genealogy of the terno I focus on in this article emphasizes alteration and transformation, to resist facile binaries of the nation as traditional and the diaspora as the site of modern and innovative modifications. My historicization of the terno underscores it as an emergent form in which to situate the uses of the terno in Filipino American performance projects within the history of the terno itself. Specifically, the essay focuses on the defamiliarization of feminine constructs that operate both in the nation and the diaspora, as well as to foreground the imbrications of colonial histories and our neocolonial present in the current global circulation of Filipina bodies. I highlight how these artists in the Filipino diaspora spectacularize the inchoateness of categories of gender, race and sexuality. Their performance works delink the dressee from the dress, the terno from the Filipina, the dress from the girl and the boy, the dress from the straight and from the queer, the dress from the diasporic and from the national. Within such figurations, the terno emerges as an overprivileged icon – of ideal womanhood and of the mother nation – whose iconicity is re-routed through bodies that do not belong.

Keywords: Filipino American performance; dressing; fashion and national costume

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles

Publication date: July 1, 2011

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