Whether it be historical periods, outlandish sci-fi fantasies, or contemporary dramas, costume design helps build the world of the film and breathe life into it. They not only add flair to the film’s characters and production value but they also help tell its story.
In the Philippines, however, we are more acquainted with costume design in beauty pageants and theater. Throughout history, costumes in film have become so underrated that it’s not even a recognized field by film festivals and award-giving bodies in the country. As a response, costumes have become an afterthought for most Filipino viewers.
But that is not to say that Filipino cinema has completely forgotten the art of costume design. Over the years, there are still films that not just use costumes to make stylistic and fashionable statements, but also to maximize its storytelling ability.
Here’s a list of landmark Filipino films from each generation with iconic costume and wardrobe designs:
“Genghis Khan” (1950)
The postwar period brought us the “First Golden Age of Filipino Cinema.” During this time, the Philippines was one of Asia’s bustling film industries, churning out at least 350 films per year anchored by major production studios. This saw the first Filipino films to gain international recognition, including Manuel Conde’s “Genghis Khan” which debuted at the 13th Venice Film Festival in 1952.
Dubbed as a costume epic, “Genghis Khan” was an ambitious project labored by Conde and Carlos “Botong” Francisco who served as the film’s production and costume designer. Together they made their vision come to life by painstakingly researching every single detail about the life of Temüjin, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. Conde’s wife Julita Salazar also helped craft the costumes using materials sourced from Benguet and Divisoria.
Conde and Francisco (who are both national artists, by the way) were tasked with creating elaborate and accurate costumes based on 13th-century Mongolian wear, from the headpieces, armors, and other leather accessories, down to the Mongolian short robes called deel. Today, after being restored at the 69th Venice fest for public viewing, “Genghis Khan” still stands as the beacon of Filipino costume design.
“A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” (1965)
After major production houses closed due to Hollywood’s burgeoning dominance, the local film industry was able to explore more genres and forms, including this adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s 1950 literary play that serves as an elegy to Old Manila. Directed by Lamberto V. Avellano, “A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino” became known for its thematic storytelling, poetic English dialogues, and stunning black-and-white cinematography.
The movie tells the story of two middle-aged sisters, Candida and Paula (played by Daisy H. Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers), as they deal with the economic loss and artistic drought of their painter father during the 1940s in Intramuros. This also forced them to take on a male boarder named Tony Javier who moonlights as a suave pianist at night.
Though shot in monotonous colors, the film still looked and felt as vivid as possible. Under the supervision of Nena Jaramillo, the wardrobe and costumes of each character helped emphasize the film’s visuals by layering the sisters with different textures—for instance, having them grace scenes in laced baros and silk sayas.
In 2015, a documentary was produced and directed by Butch Nolasco in memory of the film’s production and legacy. Titled “Portrait: Rediscovering a Filipino Film Classic,” the documentary was narrated by Avellana’s daughter herself, Ivi Avellana-Cosio.
“Working Girls” (1984)
Despite the censorship imposed during the Martial Law era, the country once again entered another “Golden Age” for local cinema, which was helmed by the rising Filipino auteurs of the time. The growing political crises meant that films became a form of protest for artists like Ishmael Bernal, best known for his brand of feminist films like “Manila By Night” and “Himala.”
In 1984, Bernal directed the corporate drama “Working Girls,” which follows an ensemble of seven different girls coping with the fast-paced milieu of Makati during the 1980s. Costume designer Cesar Gaupo made sure to reflect each of the character’s personality in their style while maintaining the film’s overall bright and glossy ‘80s glam.
In the iconic kembot scene, Carmi Martin’s character Suzanne struts down the Makati highway in a tiger-print, form-fitting dress while embellished in gold graphic accessories. Though it’s Hilda Koronel that drives the film’s main plot, Martin’s was for sure the most memorable character, serving us with an entire corporate mood.
“Labs Kita… Okey Ka Lang?” (1998)
The post-Martial Law era brought box-office success back to the mass production of films, which resulted in the often formulaic genres of action, slapstick comedy, and rom-coms. Despite its cliched plot, “Labs Kita… Okey Ka Lang?” brought us costumes and wardrobes that captured the essence of its time like a memory box.
Directed by Jerry Lopez Sineneng, the film follows best friends Bujoy and Ned (played by Jolina Magdanga and Marvin Agustin) who grew up in Baguio together. To reflect the cool and cozy climate, wardrobe consultant Salvador Espaldon took advantage of the vibrant yet loose layered trends of late ‘90’s youth subcultures. These looks are actually making a comeback this year with the rise of TikTok and kidcore.
But the true brilliance of this film, besides how timeless each outfit looks, is how they utilized the clothes to reflect the characters’ journey as well. Though Bujoy’s signature color is yellow, reflecting her youthful and friendly personality, she still isn’t afraid to switch up her colors depending on her moods and feelings.
The Salazar siblings were portrayed by a star-studded cast—no less than Toni Gonzaga, Bea Alonzo, Angel Locsin, Shaina Magdayao, and Enchong Dee. However, their characters’ wardrobes are also deserving of attention. Though most outfits worn in the film are definitely products of their time, one can argue for their unexpected campiness retrospectively. The film captures the “cheuginess” of the early 2010s with so much vividness and character.
The wardrobe department, headed by Angge Posadas, pulled off differentiating the sisters based on their status and personalities. For instance, Gabbie’s matron-wear reflects her maternal instinct, while Alex’s casual rocker chic speaks true to her being the black sheep of the family.
“Four Sisters and a Wedding,” just like the films mentioned prior and more, might be best remembered for many of its iconic scenes. But if we look closely, costume design proves to us how the other elements of filmmaking also help shape a film and the memories we have with it. It’s only right that we start reviving and treating costume and wardrobe design as a formidable force in Filipino arts and culture.
Photo screengrabbed from ABS-CBN Star Cinema’s “Four Sisters and a Wedding” YouTube clip