It's better than nothing. It’s better than stupid, oversized logos and pointlessly abstract prints. And it’s one of the most fascinating things to happen to Philippine RTW in years. The question is: why didn’t they think of this earlier?
I’m referring to the recent proliferation of nationalistic and literary references in—I say the word with trepidation— fashion. I mean those T-shirts with colors of the Philippine flag, ironic images of Rizal with shades and oversized headphones, blouses and dresses emblazoned with quotes from the works of our National Artists for Literature.
They span the vast iconography of Philippine culture—everything from the Propagandistas of the 1800s to manggang hilaw with bagoong, from Rico J. Puno to tokwa’t baboy and logos of beloved consumer products like Choc Nut, from snippets of classic OPM lyrics to Marcos-Tolentino campaign posters. All these on a shirt, on a bag, on a dress, or a trucker’s cap. All these striking a charming note of familiarity that evokes smiles among people of a certain generation. Like when you say ‘Tom Babauta” or “Pagoda Cold Wave Lotion.” Symbols and signifiers—from the sublime to the pedestrian—you can wear. Never mind if most of the materials were most likely imported from China (Tell me: what in this ecosphere isn’t from China, anyway? That and the call for boycott of products is another story).
So how did Fashionalism start?
Beats me, though it is curious to note that this recent development may have unmistakably foreign roots. I refer, of course, to the commodification of the images of Mao and Che Guevarra (who, according to some very well-read jologs, is the lead vocalist of Rage Against the Machine). The Che shirts became very popular because of the aforementioned rap-metal band. The Mao arrived via Hong Kong, where a certain Mao craze swept the tourist souvenir market i.e. Micky Mao watches, messenger bags, pendants, bracelets. Before that, the only pieces of clothing that had the faces of Rizal and Bonifacio were usually worn by aktibistas or die-hard cultists. Or sold as souvenirs by museum shops. Maybe some wiseass thought, “Hey, if we can print Mao, why not… you know…. Rizal?” Or maybe why not Joma Sison?
Enter the polo shirts with the Philippine map emblazoned on the upper right side where a horse and a mallet-wielding rider used to be. Enter the hiphop heads, with the late Francis Magalona and his clothing line persistently adorned with the three stars and the sun. Then came the multinational sports brands flattering us with tracksuits and shirts printed with “PILIPINAS.” Then came the T-shirt brands specializing in contemporary Filipiniana— soundbites and punchlines treated with unmistakably stylish fonts like Helvetica and solarized photographs. Rizal with aviator shades? Rizal with DJ headphones? Once upon a time, that would have been considered sacrilegious. But ours is a postmodern consumerist universe where Rizal collides with Justin Bieber, where Aguinaldo poses with Ninoy Aquino, where Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is portrayed with horns and a pitchfork (Oh, wait, that’s the province of the rabid Left), where the once lowly image of the dirty-ice cream cart or the taho assumes a iconic graphic status. The power of the image and the soundbite—with an unmistakably Pinoy sentiment.
But the seeds of “sacrilege” have been with us ever since. We’ve always been cheeky. It began as early as people chanting “Andres Bonifacio, a-tapang a-ato… a-putol a-titi…” or when they started turning Emilio Aguinaldo into Randy Santiago on the five-peso bill.
Does all this patriotic garb inspire a genuine sense of nationalism? I don’t know. But it’s a lot better than “Boy London” or “I Love NYC.” These shirts serve as massive public advertisements for nationalistic sentiments or whatever you might want to call it. Stuck for hours inside the train or the bus, a quote from Jose Garcia Villa better than staring at a blank shirt. Meditating on the image of Rizal is better than gazing at some silly crocodile logo. It’s the best way to arouse curiosity in a populace whose only source of history are the period telenovelas on primetime. Speaking of which, such ambitious production attempts are definitely a vast improvement over the usual komiks superhero crap.
Perhaps appreciation begins on the surface level. In the television programs I work in, we usually do man-on-the-street interviews and I tell you: you’ll be shocked by how abysmally uninformed people are—from vegetable vendors to even students—in terms of matters historical. Maybe from this surfeit of visual information, real, heartfelt knowledge might arise. Did that just make sense? Well, if local politicians could attempt the same strategy their tarpaulins and billboards…. But I’m pretty sure that the image of Rizal, with or without the aviator shades, would still come across as more trustworthy than your average councilor.
Which brings us to Rizal—still, after 150 years, the uber-Filipino. Screw the retraction issue. We excite ourselves over such never-ending controversies. Of course, Rizal is very much in right now. All the television networks are scrambling for the obligatory historical documentary, with strikingly funky visuals and the contemporary soupcon of irreverence. This has been an intensely busy week for historians and Rizal scholars whose monastic dormancy has been invaded by camera crews and interviewers, as well as invitations to the public affairs talk shows.
Certainly we’ve grown tired of hearing about Rizal the superhuman so we try to pull him down to earth by talking about his love life and stuff that is the usual discourse of weekend gossip shows. But let me repeat: talking about Rizal is better than talking about the dating developments of Phil Younghusband and Angel Locsin.
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Artwork by Warren Espejo.