Beauty Talk and Empire

Luzon Lingerie, 1920, Burton Holmes Travel Pictures. Clutario discusses this film extensively in Chapter 3, on the colonial development of embroidery as a cottage industry in the Philippines, and its neocolonial persistence within local industries.

A local fashion glossy recently published a short piece on Filipina actress and entrepreneur Nadine Lustre. The author describes Lustre as an “outspoken champion of Filipina morena beauty,” mentioning instances where the actress shut down critics who were giving her “a lot of hate for being dark.” In the same space, however, the author writes off Lustre’s complexion as both a flaw that should be “embraced” and a “new thing.”

That a celebrity with the status of Lustre would still be criticized for her skin color shows a well-documented dominant preference for whiter skin, confining the definition of “beauty” – at least as far as the entertainment and fashion industries were concerned – to those with mestiza featuresThe term mestiza had previously just referred to those “of mixed race,” but was later embraced as a signifier of social capital, signifying a prevalence of internalized colonialism among Filipinos. 

Despite the article’s petty and superficial nature and its easy dismissal as “fluff,” it still imparts an uncomfortable truth: that beauty is an enduring concern. As an industry, beauty is worth billions – far more if we were to include adjacent industries like fashion, fitness, and wellness. Even as beauty continues to be diminished as mere frivolity (and this is undoubtedly due to its historically gendered nature as “women’s work”), Filipinos, more often than not, deeply care about appearances. Or rather, we are conditioned to.

Genevieve Alva Clutario’s Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1941 (Duke University Press, 2023) picks at the threads of this seemingly petty yet ubiquitous concern to unravel a history of beauty production. By confining her study to the periods wherein the budding Philippine nation was being handed from one regime to the next, she delivers a sharp analysis of how gender, more specifically the performance of Filipina femininity, was racialized and disciplined to serve the social and economic demands of modernity under a period of “transimperialism,” or overlapping colonial regimes.

In many ways, Graphic’s multipage feature on Balmori substantiates what historian Ambeth Ocampo calls the “Filipino obsession with beauty contests,” referring to the pervasiveness of beauty pageants across barrios, towns, and regions in the Philippines and throughout the diaspora that have developed into a mainstay of Filipino life.

Genevieve Alva Clutario, Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1941. Duke University Press, 2023.

In a nutshell, this makes Beauty Regimes “the untold story of beauty work and empire,” linking two seemingly disparate concepts across five chapters (and one long epilogue) where Clutario tracks emotional, physical, and financial investments in Filipina beauty production. More generally, Clutario asks, “What can we gain by taking beauty seriously?” against a backdrop of shifting power structures, moving from the deeply racist change of hands from the Spanish to the American colonial administration, to the brutality experienced under the Japanese military.

Beginning each chapter with a seemingly innocuous anecdote, she connects seemingly irrelevant beauty talk to broader phenomena, thereby charting the formation of her titular regimes and the larger system they uphold. While this might sound like a narrative of the beauty and fashion industries within Philippine economic history (in itself, a worthwhile endeavor), Clutario takes it a step further, describing not only the formation of beauty businesses, but the role of both paid and unpaid beauty work within mounting class and racial tensions between Filipinos and the different empires that subjugated them. 

Peering through a gendered lens, Clutario exposes the complex roles Filipinas played within empire and the fraught establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth, building upon previous works on Philippine-American relations, such as Elizabeth Holt’s Colonizing Filipinas (2002), Nerissa Balce’s Body Parts of Empire (2016), and more recently, Stephanie Coo’s Clothing the Colony (2019), all of which were published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Despite confining the text to a specific period, Clutario’s work is made more relevant by an enduring anxiety over the embodiment of a Filipino identity, i.e. Who gets to be called a Filipino/a/x? This is exemplified by the nostalgia peddled by accounts like @fashionable_filipinas on Instagram, which celebrates (deliberately or otherwise) some notion of Filipina quintessence, particularly around the wearing of the butterfly-sleeved terno – an outfit which, lest we forget, was weaponized by a deposed dictator’s wife in her own attempts at monopolizing the discourse on the good, the true, and the beautiful.

What Clutario makes glaringly obvious (especially in chapters one and five) is that an outfit, as in the case of the butterfly-sleeved terno and numerous other finery donned by Filipina elites, is never just an outfit, just as beauty belies far more than surface and artifice. Writing about the wives of politicians, embroiderers, beauty queens, and socialites, Clutario renders beauty as a complex weapon. In the hands of her Filipina subjects, it is deployed with both tenderness and aggression. 

In chapter two, Clutario lays out the origins of the country’s well-known beauty pageant industrial complex, where she points out how beauty still allows Filipinas and Filipina-identifying subjects to crown themselves “queen for a day.” Beyond the already familiar criticisms of Filipina participation in the pageant world, Clutario’s work also points to a more contemporary phenomenon: where the beauty pageant is also a venue for self-organization and empowerment – a means for Filipinas to carve out space for themselves in a world they otherwise had no hand in making. This brings to mind the recent breakthroughs of the Pinoy drag scene, and other spaces celebrating queer joy.

Precious Paula Nicole, Queen of the first ever season of RuPaul’s Drag Race Philippines. source:;

The optimism of this chapter however is brought back down to earth in the next sections, where Clutario veers away from embodied performances of beauty, and towards the establishment of export-oriented cottage industries in the Philippines. Across chapters three and four, she describes the growth of a work force of Filipina embroiderers, utilizing child labor through the colonial public school system, as well as prison labor, through the women’s wards in Bilibid penitentiary. Clutario makes the disturbing observation of Filipinas’ “appeal as a cheap, feminized labor source…grounded in their colonial status and nonwhite racialization, which together forged a disposable and vulnerable worker identity that persisted long after the formal end of US colonial rule (116).”

This may prompt readers to consider Beauty Regimes not only in light of the fashion and beauty industries, but for the role of the Philippines in the global export of care labor and, by extension, the country’s continued dependence on outsourced labor, both internally and internationally. These descriptions still apply to how much of internal migration is still driven by Filipinas moving from the provinces to the cities, to work in the homes and families of wealthier Filipinos. On a larger scale, this is seen in the number of Filipinas (1.10 million, as of 2021) who continue to perform similar roles abroad. 

By deftly articulating these connections between economic vulnerability and beauty work as a performance of so-called feminine roles, Clutario exposes the interwoven histories of empire and aesthetics. She thereby exposes the insidious ways that beauty – and by extension, femininity and discipline – was used to shroud broader systems of oppression and exploitation. –

Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines, 1898-1941 is forthcoming from Duke University Press. 
Originally published in Rappler on MAR 1, 2023 1:54 PM PHT as “‘Beauty Regimes’ review: Beauty talk and empire”.

In Residence/Work in Progress

I recently temporarily relocated to Innsbruck for a residency at Kunstlerhaus Buchsenhausen. By recently, I mean a little over a month and a half ago, and this only highlights the temporary conditions of the endeavor, in that I am already a third of the way through my time here.

Since I landed, I have done two public events, attended one exhibition opening, caught up with my movie viewing, made friends with a neighbor’s dog (and the neighbors), gone ice skating twice, pitched four articles, published one, accepted another project for later this year, and purchased roller skates, which I am currently learning to use for purposes other than competitive contact sports. I have learned that landing in a completely new city (and getting to work immediately, no less) is made softer by the privilege of having something close to a network, but also resembling a family. One of the things that has made/is making this residency go by incredibly fast is the constant stealing of free weekends (and weeks) to see friends and chosen family. None of the above would have been possible without the comfort of that soft landing.

I’ve been talking to other friends with similar experiences of being uprooted in this way of whether a residency is part of one’s life or separate from it. This crystallized somewhat with my realization that every time I’m in the city center, I feel compelled to swing by a one-euro store or any cheap home goods store just in case I might need something. This is borne of my habit of passing by a Daiso or Japan Home whenever I happened to be out running errands in Manila, and recreating this habit brings me some comfort even if I don’t have the same responsibilities towards the place where I live here, as I do at home. Which, of course, is still Manila.

But there is that anxiety still, or that need to perform some part of the dance of building a home – even if the choreography is incomplete. (That on the left is TEDi, although yesterday I discovered that Kik has far superior winter tights and craft supplies.)

Beyond the more abstract and emotional aspects of not having a permanent address for an extended period, what residencies make clear is how much work it takes to rebuild a life elsewhere. While the past month and a half easily filled up with equal parts work and leisure, just as much time has gone in to filling in certain gaps: basic needs I could not make room for in my luggage, since I knew I could find counterparts here. What is impossible to account for however, especially when moving to a completely unfamiliar city, is how long it takes to find those counterparts; how long before certain places become “haunts” or a route becomes well-tread. And how do you fill in those gaps (which basically means how long before you feel like yourself again) in the middle of working on things that demand so much of your self (which is how it feels to work on art).

When I first arrived, I thought I had a system figured out when it came to drafting the text I came here to work on. Because it would be approaching a composite of several texts I had already written about the content economy, I figured I could simply make a cognitive map of those texts and the concepts that linked them, and move forward from there.

Going in that direction would have resulted in a draft in about a month, give or take. I could have had a draft which I would just discuss and edit with my curator over the rest of the residency period.

This is not how it works though when your text has a lot of moving parts, both literally and figuratively. At some point, I scrapped everything on the first board, decided I did not particularly like some of the things I had written in my earlier essays. Not wanting to add to the industrial complex of studies (and mentions) of the strongmen whose regimes I was initially studying, I also decided to depart pretty fully from the case studies I had proposed to explore when I first applied for this residency.

The flip chart on the left? It is now on the back of a giant doodle I am working on in my downstairs studio, aka my apartment. Buchsenhausen has two studios for each of the resident fellows: a massive lab, which we all share (and which I bought the skates for), and on top of the shared lab, we each have living quarters where we are free to spend all our time if we’re not feeling very sociable.

So what started as a project that meant to explore the contemporary (as in current, as in TO-DAY) content economy in the Philippines and its repercussions on the state, the public sphere, and meaningful forms of public engagement (something I keep meaning to do and have actually proposed twice, but keep getting unbearably depressed by) has been dialled back by a few decades for one case study, and roughly a century for the other.

I am now working with these two maps. The one on the left is all photos of Andres Luna de San Pedro’s Crystal Arcade, a building I became fascinated by at the tail end of my coursework in Art Studies, and have remained obsessed with since for its resonance with two canonical narratives of modernity and empire: the Crystal Palace expositions which were often staged at the turn of the 20th century throughout Western Europe, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project. But also for how it recalls all these salacious details of Philippine elite history that often tend to overshadow the violence of architecture, and how this violence became such a potent force in the rendering of Philippine society. That is how I want to talk about the formation and perpetuation of narratives which in turn erode public spaces and engagement.


We have a second public program coming up at the end of the month. For that, I will be in conversation with Lisa Ito of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines and Cian Dayrit of Saka, still in relation to A Meme is not a Monument…Then towards the end, we have an exhibition at the Kunstpavilion at the Hofgarten, for which I will be showing the text in some exhibition-ready capacity (still have not decided since the text does not exist yet…haha, but there’s still time) alongside work by two or three more artists (on my end at least. Not yet sure what the other fellows have planned).

I should really try to update this more often, if only to get a grip on what I’m working on.