Beyond the Portrait’s Gaze

A group of women in one progressive merchant's living room in Albay, 1887.

When did girls tease each other on the sly about the follies of their prospective partners? Why were there separate schools for each gender? If you were around in 1887, that would have been the setting. Notice how the panuelo stood along the women’s shoulders in the lithographic print. Their skirts flared like large bells with luscious folds and the folding fan was an ever present accessory to ward of heat, conceal giggles and hungry eyes.

During my grandmother’s time, the mestiza dress morphed into a decolletage with the skirt narrowing into a kafir Lily – shaped attire. 

The erstwhile "starched collar " dress has become a localized decolletage with a pretty Lily-shaped hemline. That's my grandma in the year 1916.

This photo of my grandma when she was still Miss Maria Manalo de la Cruz (she was a beauty queen in their town) shows that the Filipina  wanted her form to be flattered and noticed by 1916. Instead of fabric falling like drapery around the lower extremeties, the skirt was starched stiff and retained it’s narrowed-down shape most of the time.

Maria, my paternal grandmother had six siblings. They were Concepcion, Guillermo (who married Eustaquia Bernardo)*,Felisa (who married Simeon Estrella), Urbana, Isidra and Pedro (who married Rufina Roxas). As I scanned the family tree diagram, it appears that every generation produced one or two women who stayed single all their lives.

Grandma Maria married my grandpa Leovigildo Libao De Leon who wore a serious poker face even if he was making awefully funny and childish remarks about someone’s pecker. As it was, my grandma experienced two wars. One while she was an infant in 1898 and another during the Japanese occupation. 

The mestiza dress wearing Filipina wasn’t as domicile as we are inclined to think. Next time, I will post a photo of a late 19th century country girl in full battle gear. It gets interesting when we re-invent the way we view women of a previous period. You will see them in their perfect element even at a critical instance when social and political transition was at its most turbulent moments. I for one do not doubt that their faith in the Almighty God created in them a core that included fortitude and a sense of destiny and optimism.

*See an earlier post about Juanita Bernardo Principe.  


Ocampo, Ambeth, The Prewar Lover’s Guide in Aguinaldo’s breakfast and More Looking Back Essays, Anvil Publishing,1993.


About cathydeleon

I was a student of the late Constancio Bernardo and Jose Joya. I also had the privilege to have Rod Paras Perez, Napoleon "Billy" Abueva, Romeo Mananquil, Rafael Asuncion, Virginiaflor Agbayani and Lito Carating as my mentors. Larry Alcala's work at the Commission on Audit was done with a little help from me and another fine arts graduate. It was as well a privilege to meet many well known Filipino artists like Juvenal Sanso, Nena Saguil, Cesar Legaspi, Ang Kiukok, Onib Olmedo, Boy Rodriguez, Norma Belleza, Jerry Araos, Fred Baldemor, Esmeraldo Dans, Dave Aquino, and many other equally prominent visual artists. After a few years of working in a gallery, I took up graduate studies and finished my M.A. degree. Consequently I took up Philippine Studies (Philippine Society and Culture). The course was a consortium between the UP Asian Center, UP College of Social Sciences & Philosophy (CSSP) and the College of Arts & Letters (CAL). I finished my Ph.D. degree a few years ago.
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One Response to Beyond the Portrait’s Gaze

  1. Cathy Deleon says:

    That should read ‘ward off heat’.

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