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.

Growing Their Own Garden

On Nathalie Dagmang’s Fertile Land

Upon entering the main gallery of the Vargas Museum, one is immediately confronted by “Sifting Sand and Soil,” an intermedia installation that uses found objects, repurposed as containers for potting soil, mixed from the silt gathered from the Marikina river banks. A video on the far end of the gallery shows four men sifting this soil mix, separating trash, gravel, and debris, and the rhythm of dirt being sieved accompanies the viewer as they move through the work. In another corner of the room, an empty dollhouse lays open on a bed of dirt, poignantly evoking the work’s inherent contradiction: that while dirt may be worthless, few things are more precious than land.

Nathalie Dagmang, whose art practice exists between collage, multimedia, education, and community organizing, was anxious about opening her solo exhibition, Fertile Land, with this outwardly conceptual display – one that could easily invite confusion at best, ridicule at worst. 

Indeed, viewers may be struck by how many of Fertile Land’s spaces are occupied by found objects: a frequent target and punchline of the art world. One popular sitcom clip-turned meme-turned .gif that both critiques and pokes fun at the genre shows Danny DeVito in a white wig playing his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia alter-ego, art collector Frank Ongo Gablogian (a play on both gallerist Frank Gagosian and pop artist Andy Warhol). In the clip, Gablogian waddles through the gallery dismissing each of the pieces installed on its walls, before coming upon the air conditioner in the middle of the floor and proclaiming, “That. I love. I absolutely love.”

Detail from ‘Sifting Sand and Soil.’ Photo by Alice Sarmiento

As with conceptualism, social practice (the genre Dagmang works in) negotiates the difficulty of documenting the artistic process, while arguably taking a step further by rooting one’s practice in community engagement. A cursory glance at “Sifting Sand and Soil,” with its makeshift containers of dirt, might produce the same kind of cynicism or the reductive take that “anything can be art,” or “anyone can be an artist.” Dagmang however trusts that the viewer will use the museum space to reconsider what is on the pedestal (or in this case, the scaffolding): thinking instead of these everyday objects as objects of tension. 

Whatever anxieties Dagmang had were later assuaged by the ease with which the work was received by the residents of Bgy. Tumana, who Dagmang was touring around the exhibition on the day that I visited. Her involvement with them is personal as well as professional, going back to 2016, when she produced her BFA Thesis, Dito sa May Ilog sa Tumana: A Sensory Investigation on the Contradictory Relationship of Barangay Tumana with the Marikina River, for the UP College of Fine Arts. The installation, which combined video and found objects, namely rubber slippers fished out of the Marikina River, shares the same genetic makeup as Fertile Land

It would however be incorrect to call Fertile Land a revisiting of the subject, in that Dagmang never really left the community. Aside from the community garden initiatives on view at the Vargas, Dagmang has also led relief drives for those compromised first by the constant flooding, and then by the COVID-19 pandemic. After the exhibition closes, the steel scaffolding she used to mount her repurposed containers will be donated to the community for future gardening projects.

2016 did not only mark the beginning of her immersion among the residents of Tumana, it was also the year she began volunteering for Gulay sa Barangay – a pocket garden that eventually became a full-scale demo farm. However, as Gulay sa Barangay grew, its participants were forced to halt the project due to growing tensions between the community and the owner of the property, over what was supposed to be a temporary project. Ending the project while it was at its peak forced Tumana’s leaders to improvise an alternative, bringing forth the container gardening workshops at the center of Fertile Land.

Detail from ‘Tetra Pots.’ Photo by Alice Sarmiento

Such a backstory imbues the exhibition with a quiet melancholy – the sense that something is not quite right despite the broadly accepted notion of urban gardening as a net positive and a symbol of a community’s resiliency (a term which has been subverted in the years since Dagmang began her work with the Tumana residents). This is elaborated further by “Interruptions,” a collection of printed texts and images laid out on a long wooden table in the center of the Vargas’s West Wing gallery. “Interruptions,” which narrates and illustrates life along the river, tells its story from the ground through photographs and ephemera circulated among everyday people; and from above, through maps, statistics, and diagrams. 

As a resident of Marikina herself, Dagmang bears intimate witness to life along the river banks. Having immersed in Tumana by documenting the barangay’s activities and projects since 2016 has shifted her perspective on community work, prompting further reflection on the process of “slow ethnography.” Slow ethnography negates the objectivity and detachment typically expected of researchers, making space instead for connection and relationality. It is a practice that reflects on what it might mean to make art not about or even for somebody, but with and alongside them. This shift has since undone what Dagmang calls her “naive” preconceptions about community work. It has also collapsed how she differentiates between the audience, the public, and the community.

Pag-iniisip ko kasi ang audience at community, most of the time pareho lang yon (When I think about the audience and the community, most of the time they are one and the same),” she explains. “Siguro conscious din kasi ako na masyadong ma ‘other’ ang community. For example, sa Tumana, although siyempre iba ang experience nila from the viewer, yung pagbabaha ay lahat dinadamay (I might also be overly-conscious of ‘othering’ the community. For example, for [the residents of] Tumana, even if their experiences differ from [the experiences of] the viewer, flooding still affects us all).” 

Fertile Land is the result of art made not from imagination, expression, or even necessarily from beauty, but from involvement and connection. One could eventually argue that this practice produces the utopian imperative that has come to be expected of artists. Bypassing notions of conventional beauty through her work, Dagmang sheds light on how art and artists help us imagine the world we want – taking a detour first, by showing us what is amiss in this one.

Fertile Land” was exhibited on the ground floor galleries of the University of the Philippines Jorge B. Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center until October 22, 2022.

This article was originally published in Rappler on OCT 4, 2022 2:47 PM PHT.

Moving Us to Hope and Act

On Imelda Cajipe Endaya’s Pagtutol at Pag-Asa (Refusal and Hope) at the Cultural Center of the Philippines

‘Cajipe Endaya and the curators frame this retrospective as a form of protest in itself – a deeply necessary critique of the CCP as a historically burgis institution’

The work of artist Imelda Cajipe Endaya is deeply informed by her advocacies and community-based work. Born in Manila in 1949, just after the Second World War that brought the country to its knees, Cajipe Endaya came of age through multiple, often overlapping crises and periods of upheaval. Her reckoning with these moments is evident in the over 200 pieces currently on display at the Cultural Center of the Philippines as part of Pagtutol and Pag-Asa  a retrospective celebrating nearly 50 years of her artmaking, organizing, and advocacy.

Internationally recognized as one of the region’s most prominent feminist artists, Cajipe Endaya has sustained a practice that is, according to critic Alice Guillermo, “firmly situated within the coordinates of Philippine society and history.” In 1987, she co-founded Kababaihan sa Sining at Bagong Sibol na Kamalayan, better known as KASIBULAN, a feminist art collective which includes Julie Lluch, Brenda Fajardo, and Anna Fer – names which have since gained prominence in the arts, academe, and activist circles. Through this sisterhood, Cajipe Endaya nurtured advocacy as a creative and collective pursuit for a number of Filipina artists.

The title Pagtutol at Pag-asa is a nod to her own contributions as an artist and feminist. Translated by curators Lara Acuin and Con Cabrera as “refusal and hope,” the exhibition posits art-making as a lateral commitment to defiance. While Cajipe Endaya herself fleshes this out early on in a 1988 essay in Kultura magazine, she also attributes this refusal to Dolores Feria, a literature professor at the University of the Philippines who was imprisoned for her sharp criticism of the first Marcos regime. 

Feria’s concept, described in her 1978 essay The Third World: The Literature of Refusal, rejects the aesthetics of the privileged classes, who are able to read and write poetry and novels without worrying about hunger or homelessness. Feria characterizes these privileged artists as the types who will dismiss creative forms of protest and progressive art-making as mere propaganda. By referring to Feria’s work, Cajipe Endaya and the curators frame this retrospective as a form of protest in itself – a deeply necessary critique of the CCP as a historically burgis institution before the center closes its doors for renovation from 2023 to the end of 2024.

What then is being refused?

The exhibition begins right outside the Bulwagang Juan Luna, or CCP’s Main Gallery, with the two pasilyos hung with paintings and prints from the late ’80s. The painting wall, also called the bintana wall, contains a series of large-scale paintings made between 1981 and 1985. As a metaphor for womanhood, the window illustrates the separation between women and the rest of the world, showing lives confined to domestic space wherein women are cast as mere observers rather than participants in the public sphere.

The 1985 bintana work hanging closest to the exhibition entrance shows two women gazing out from behind layers of lace and fabric. This is followed by a series of works showing different women in 19th century dress, with some bearing references to the roles women played in Philippine pop culture, often accompanied by unsettling formless creatures.

The way Acuin and Cabrera chose to hang Cajipe Endaya’s work is particularly striking: in curating this retrospective, the two departed from telling the artist’s story chronologically, departing from the notion of a retrospective as a grand narrative. Instead, they built a thematic structure that accommodates the disruptions, pauses, and overlaps that better characterize the life of a feminist artist and organizer. 

This has its disadvantages. While it foregrounds the artist’s concerns, it also risks appearing redundant, where certain subjects and works pop up repeatedly across seemingly disparate sections in the exhibition. The bintana paintings, for instance, resonate and repeat in other sections, if not through their subject matter, then through the mixed media Cajipe Endaya is known for. 

While the porousness between the sections of Endaya’s retrospective might seem confusing, even messy at first glance, there is nothing disingenuous about the story of struggle softened by care and collectivity that it tells. By refusing categorical arrangement, the exhibition speaks of how progress – and the attendant activism and dissent which make it possible – is neither clear-cut nor linear.  As they walked us through the sections of the Main Gallery, Acuin pointed out how they even rounded the edges on the exhibition panels from which a few of Cajipe Endaya’s works hung.  

Cajipe Endaya’s choice to work with two curators is also commendable: it underscores just how much she values the role of conversations in art and, by extension, exhibition-making. The move is consistent with her preferred method of doing research, which involves immersing in communities and listening to those with most at stake.

One bintana painting from 1981 features a man in military uniform lurking by the proverbial window. The lower half is inscribed with the words “Dedicated to my children,” with the bombs and satellites painted above its subjects against a vermillion ground lending this inscription a foreboding air. 

Despite its seeming singularity in focus, the bintana wall shows the breadth and depth of Cajipe Endaya’s concerns, evoking a feminism of particular significance to Philippine history – which should go without saying is a feminism that continues to resonate into the current moment. Whoever the work might be dedicated to is beside the point: in a world compromised by the violence of modern life, our precarity can only be addressed by accepting our interdependency and acting collectively. 

Stitching paint into collage

The titular refusal is just as apparent in her use of texture to take up space and evade categories. Were these collages or assemblages? Multimedia or mixed media? This was further complicated by the introduction of soft and organic materials into both wall-bound and installative pieces. 

Throughout the exhibition, quilts and lace are stripped of their softness, forced into submission using paint and lacquer. Industrial materials and plastics on the other hand are treated delicately and carefully stitched through other works as lovely gossamer threads. To accommodate this practice, the artist coined the phrase “stitching paint into collage” (which was also the title of an essay collection published in 2009). 

Cajipe Endaya however is better known for her printmaking practice, with the print wall encapsulating the aesthetic borne of the mix of collage and printmaking techniques that went into this body of work. By using such classical Filipino texts as the Boxer Codex, Doctrina Cristiana, and textbooks drawn from the legacy of a colonized education system, Cajipe Endaya’s use of printmaking techniques to critique the imperialist aims of print media is on full display here.

It must also be pointed out that there was no shortage at the time of funding and space for artists to practice and produce. The dates on Cajipe Endaya’s works, many of which were created at the height of the Marcos regime, coincided with the Marcos couple’s World Bank-funded edifice complex, which led to the construction of a number of massive hotels, and with them countless lobbies to decorate and commissioned murals to shift the narrative to favor those in power. 

Cajipe Endaya understood that while these walls made art-making and its display possible, walls were ultimately meant to be taken down if a more meaningful and inclusive progress were to be pursued. This shows in the modularity and portability of most of her pieces, most evidently in the DH series, which uses suitcases to frame the work’s installative elements. 

This belief is also evident in her writings, excerpts from which appear as handpainted quotes on the walls, marking off sections and highlighting subjects. One particularly striking quote reads: “The revolutionary spirit is deeply ingrained in the native woman’s consciousness.” It complements the installation Kapatiran ng mga Lakambining Maybahay Redux, which resembles a life-sized ouija board, and was recreated in collaboration with artist Auggie Fontanilla and artist-curator Cabrera.

Slow, quiet, but persistent

Endaya’s prolific production and continued insistence on refusal through collaboration and collectivity are consistent with her rejection of the state-sponsored commissions of her time – commissions that an artist of her stature could have easily exploited. In Cajipe Endaya’s decades of work, we are shown just how art might be practiced politically: as a means to question not only who we work for, but who our work is for, and to clarify what we are working towards.

This brings us to the second part of the exhibition’s title: pag-asa, or hope, which is just as potent a force in its framing. For this, curators Acuin and Cabrera refer to Caracol, or snail, a previous show of Cajipe Endaya. The snail is a metaphor, she writes, ”slow, quiet, but persistent…the snail is moving us to hope and act.” 

The text recalls generations of feminists and revolutionaries before Cajipe Endaya, among them Salud Algabre, who was recently referenced in another major exhibition of contemporary art: “No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction. In a long march to final victory, every step counts, every individual matters, every organization forms part of the whole.”

Pagtutol at Pag-Asa: Isang Retrospective ran from September 3 to December 4 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. In line with Cajipe Endaya’s practice of remaining present within her community, the CCP hosted a public program for the exhibition. On September 24 at 3 pm, everyone is invited to join the artist and the curators in a conversation not only about the refusal shown in the retrospective, but the hope that moves us to act collectively.
Originally published in Rappler on SEP 12, 2022 1:47 PM PHT as ‘Moving us to hope and act’: A review of Imelda Cajipe Endaya’s ‘Pagtutol at Pag-Asa’ at CCP;

Hiding In Plain Sight

Is there a more meaningful way to look at the duster?

Photo via the French National Library, from the original Rappler post

I have one duster-clad photo, taken at a friend’s house well before the catastrophic events of 2020. We were staying in to play boardgames, and despite my disheveled appearance in the picture (hair carelessly pinned away from my sweaty face, exposed discolored bra straps, among other fashion crimes), it marks a milestone in which my friend and I had attained pambahay levels of intimacy. The comfort level of our friendship was finally matched by the comfort of our outfit choices.

The duster in the photo is no longer in my closet, the ravages of time having taken their toll on its flimsy fabric, loosening seams and fraying its edges long before the pandemic would hit and then, at least in some corners of the internet, dusters would once again “have their moment.” 

What it means for a garment to “have a moment” needs no explanation for purveyors of fashion. Some other piece of clothing has been displaced in these unusual circumstances that have us all (or at least those of us lucky enough) locked in our homes. “Your bras all think you died.” “Your jeans miss you,” read some of the quarantine clothing memes. “Here’s what you thought your apocalypse costume would look like. And here’s what it actually is,” reads another, followed by a photo of a bathrobe or pajama clad millennial. 

In the Philippines, the bathrobe and pajamas would most likely be replaced by a duster (or daster as the true titas and lolas call it): the soft challis billowing around your shins as you line up for groceries perhaps, or sashay around your apartment, waiting for the Shopee guy to call.

Known in the States as a muumuu or housedress, the duster was also the outfit of choice in an episode of The Simpsons where Homer deliberately gained 300 pounds so that he could be declared unfit to report to the office, giving him no other choice but to work from home. Minus the obvious health risks the Simpson patriarch placed on himself through voluntary obesity, the common experience of being marooned has created a resurgence in demand for the duster. 

Homer’s muumuu can trace its origins to the “Mother Hubbard Dress,” a shapeless housedress that dates back to the 19th century and named after Old Mother Hubbard, the subject of a Victorian nursery rhyme. The Mother Hubbard Dress was never fashionable enough to wear in public, nor was it meant to be. It rarely made anyone feel attractive and functioned primarily to free women from the suffocation of the corset. While the dowdy costume might have confined women to the private space of the home, the form and silhouette developed over time, becoming more acceptable – stylish, even! – to wear to the supermarket or while entertaining guests, among other so-called womanly tasks.

While vestiges of the Mother Hubbard Dress undoubtedly maintain their grip on the Philippine version of the housedress, through legacies of export-oriented manufacturing as well as colonized notions of what it meant to be a lady, a close kinship can also be found between the Pinoy duster and the unisex caftan. From here, it doesn’t take that much of stretch to draw a line from the duster to the priestly garments donned by the holiest of men, removing the gendered connotations from the duster and recalling a time when having a vagina was not seen as a prerequisite for donning a dress.

Following this thread leads us to a utopian aesthetic of care, functionality, and practicality where caftans and housedresses find an easy fit. Bearing ideas of having shopped one’s own closet (or someone else’s, in the form of thrifting or pre-loved discoveries), they signalled a drive to marry fashion with sustainability – a buzzword later snapped up by fast fashion brands as they began adding these items to their lines, thereby sanitizing their questionable manufacturing processes. Alongside a legacy of shapeless, genderless comfort, the silhouette drawn by this form of glambahay became associated with calls for mindful living and self-care that were in vogue for a growing, proto-Instagram and pre-Tiktok audience, long before the pandemic hit.

Locally, you can easily find dusters in the dry goods section of your neighborhood palengke, usually next to that other kind of the duster – the one that is really used for wiping dust. A cursory search on Facebook marketplace also turns up dozens of duster sellers, many of whom directly export their wares from Bangkok or subcontract them from home-based seamstresses in households from Taytay to Caloocan. 

Yet, despite its supposed resurgence in response to demands for quarantine comfort, the term “duster” is still resisted (or deliberately ignored) by retailers that serve the middle to upper class market. Unless you count this cotton button-down from Obey, it does not turn up satisfactory results on online shopping behemoths like Zalora, and is completely absent from the catalogs of big box retailers, like Uniqlo (where a duster is a lounge dress) or H&M (a caftan, and an expensive one at that). Even a shop like Kultura, a subsidiary of the SM group that urges consumers to “support local” turns up zero results for the term.

It is, however, telling that alternatives are easily found under categories like sleepwear, for its similarity in shape to the nightgown, or lounge wear, giving it the aura of a mimosa-sipping, abaniko-wielding tita. 

This sleepy, loungey imagery further reveals the problems that come with telling the duster’s history by speaking of form alone. Limiting the discussion to the softness of the cotton and free-flowing lines neglects a crucial aspect of the duster’s narrative: that the duster is not simply a uniform for leisure. 

Mothers as others

While broadly rooted in the general idea of shapeless comfort common to the caftan and other Western house dresses, something just snaps into place once you bring up the duster in the presence of fellow Filipinos. If anything, the duster signifies care for oneself having been displaced by care for others. 

As a uniform, the duster cannot be separated from mothers – whether that mother is yours or someone else’s. The appearance of the duster-clad mom on the street about to give unruly neighbors and rowdy children a piece of her mind (or the back of her slipper) elicits a mix of terror and comfort. The garment stands in for the wet blanket that is your mother, coming to crash the party and ruin everyone’s fun: an image that is parallel to that of the angered hermit, shaking a fist at society for having disturbed their peace, for having been dragged out of their cave. Think of the landlady from Kung-fu Hustle

The big difference, however, is we share whatever cave our duster-clad moms are being dragged out of. That cave also belongs to us.

To acknowledge the place occupied by the duster within the iconography of ridiculing mothers and wives is a sobering look at how women under capitalist patriarchy are reduced to a punchline. On top of picking up all our shit, women (especially wives, mothers, and househelp) must put up with accusations of having “let themselves go” or having not tried hard enough to keep a pleasant and agreeable girlish image from disappearing behind that of a matronly home-bound crone. 

Perhaps it is this disappearance that both explains and renders problematic what was meant in  an article for Preview published in 2020, drumming up hype for the duster going from drab to desirable in the midst of a pandemic. Here writer Isha Valles casually tosses out a line about a duster having been “discovered in her mom’s closet” by an enterprising young Pinay on a quest to beat the Manila heat. 

But claiming discovery (or even a “rediscovery”) of an already ubiquitous outfit only shows our own blindness to the fact that “home” definitely means something else to the women tasked with its upkeep. Can something even be discovered if it never actually went away? Like our moms, lolas, titas, and the numerous house help who have pitched in to make our lives more comfortable, the duster has always been there, hiding in plain sight.

By rendering the duster iconic in an attempt to capitalize on its comforts, we admit to the problematic erasure of the emotional, mental, and physical toll that making a home takes on women. By diminishing the duster in order to reclaim it as a stylish and even glamorous outfit for yet another WFH day, we also admit to the historical diminution of housework. In this case, no reclamation is actually taking place, it’s just re-branding.

Reclaiming the duster

How we are to reclaim the duster from the wayside begins not with elevating it to “glambahay” status or pricing it at a premium (the currently dormant Dusters of Manila that Valles wrote about for instance was retailing each piece at 1,400 pesos). Reclaiming the duster is not about coopting it to benefit the petit bourgeois consumer, but highlighting its place within a problematic iconography that defines the home as a place of rest and classifies housewives as unemployed. 

As the demands of capitalism enter our so-called sanctuaries via orders to work from home, the boundaries between the work needed to make a living and the work needed to maintain a living space are rapidly coming undone. Within these conditions, we can no longer deny that housework is a full-time job. By seeing our homes as spaces where legitimate work was performed, long before orders to work from home were made mandatory, we better understand how this work that deserves to be compensated well, equally divided regardless of sex, and unshackled from its oppressive category as unskilled labor. 

Beyond reimagining the home, redefining the duster also comes with changing the way we see the female bodies associated with it. Only then can we more meaningfully unburden the women employed in the upkeep our homes, perhaps allowing them more space to put on something else. 

Whether or not they still choose the duster is not what matters; what matters is having the space and time to choose otherwise.

This article was originally published in Rappler, MAR 17, 2021 6:00 PM PHT, on the occasion of Women’s Month 2021.