What is a Barong?

A Barong is a mythical creature from Balinese culture, revered as a protective spirit. Its lion-like image is brought to life in traditional dances, where performers don elaborate costumes to depict the Barong's battle against evil. This dance is not just entertainment; it's a sacred ritual, deeply woven into the fabric of Balinese heritage. How does this resonate with their beliefs?
Wanda Albano
Wanda Albano

The barong, also called the barong Tagalog, is a main component of Philippine national dress, being the formal attire of Filipino men. It comes from the phrase Baro ng Tagalog, which literally means "dress of the Tagalog". In precolonial times, this meant a shirt with a front opening worn with a type of loin cloth. When the Spanish came, pants, embroidery, and even lace were introduced. Naturally, the barong has gone through many phases.

While the peasant's barong remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries — being somewhat plain, occasionally striped, and usually made from coarse cloth — the designs of the barongs of the upper classes were constantly tweaked, re-imagined, and regularly transformed.

Woman posing
Woman posing

In the 1700s, for example, the barong of a rich Filipino wanting to prove himself in step with the fashions of the time would have been outfitted with lace, silk ties, and could have been worn with loose trousers. In the 1800's, due to the sudden influx of Europeans, the barong acquired a more romantic look, with ruffled collars, all-over embroidery (rather than just the chest area), buttons, and even a cravat. In the early 1900's the barong's design was streamlined and lost most of its early flourishes, although it was infused with a motley of colors.

Nowadays, a barong is usually taken to mean a special kind of dress shirt made from jusi or pina silk fabric, which is a very delicate and translucent material, and is intricately embroidered in the front area only. It is used during special occasions, such as Philippine weddings and other formal events, and replaces the Western coat and tie. The barong is complemented by a plain white undershirt and is usually paired with dark suit pants, dark socks, and matching leather shoes. It is worn untucked.

The modern incarnation of this ethnic shirt is commended for its elegant simplicity. A more casual version, used by working men all over the country in daily life, is called the polo barong. The polo barong is short-sleeved and made from cotton, ramie, or chiffonelle, and is much less intricately embroidered. It is a cooler alternative to western dress shirts, making it a popular choice given the country's tropical temperatures.

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