The terno is the national dress of the Philippines. It evolved from the Maria Clara or Traje de Mestiza dress, which originated from the Baro’t Saya. The terno is identified by its butterfly sleeves— flat, oversized high-peaked sleeves that are rounded at the shoulders by pleats using stiff cotton, piña (pineapple fabric) or synthetic fabrics. The terno combines western influences with indigenous design and is considered a status symbol of wealth, social class, education, and Filipino femininity. It is worn primarily for formal functions such as government events or weddings, but is now being designed as daywear to help encourage more people to wear the terno and strengthen Filipino pride.

Originating with the baro’t saya (a top and skirt) during the precolonial era, the terno transformed into the traje de mestiza in the 1500s during Spanish colonization. The traje de mestiza was a precursor to the terno imposed by Spanish dress codes that consisted of a full skirt and bell-shaped sleeves. During American occupation in the 1900s -1920s, the sleeves were flattened and became the butterfly sleeve. In the 1930s, as the Philippines transitioned to independence from the United States, women were also transitioning from wearing ternos to western fashion. Ternos were cumbersome to wear in the streets and involved high-maintenance care. 

In 1965 the terno was brought into the public eye when Imelda Marcos, the first lady and wife of President Ferdinand Marcos, came to power. She wore the terno so often it became synonymous with her identity, which was a detriment to the garment. She and her husband stole billions of the country’s funds for themselves and after the revolution in 1986, women stopped wearing the terno as it became stigmatized as “dictator chic” for its association with the Marcos regime.

In 2018, Gino Gonzales, co-author of Fashionable Filipinas, aimed to bring back the glory of the terno through the TernoCon— a fashion design competition showcasing modern ternos, as well as the Philippines’ own version of the Met Gala, where local celebrities wore elaborate and beautiful ternos.


Appropriation and Influence

An Instagram story screenshot of Kacey Musgraves in a yellow Ao Dai without pants

Model Karlie Kloss walking in Jean Paul Gaultier's Spring/Summer 2020 collection.

Prominent Filipino fashion magazine, praised Galliano for presenting a “terno” inspired lace bodysuit for his final collection, even though there is no statement from the designer or anyone from his team confirming the resemblance. Whether or not this is an intentional lack of accreditation of the terno, it demonstrates that Filipinos have been severely unrepresented and discredited in fashion and will be satisfied being mildly referenced, even if it is only recognized by other Filipinos. As the butterfly sleeves have become the only sartorial link to Filipino identity and culture, seeing any non-Filipino representation in media or in design (with or without the credit) is simultaneously disempowering and empowering.

An image of a seated model in front of a black backdrop dressed in an elaborate light blue Ao Dai. To the right is a vertical timeline of Thuy Nguyen's achievements

Model Lea Julian wearing look 25 for the Moschino Spring/Summer 2020 collection.

Another example of an uncanny resemblance to the terno’s distinctive butterfly sleeves with no credit to the garment. According to Vogue, designer Jeremy Scott was inspired by Picasso and bullfighting costumes for his Spring/Summer 2020 collection. It is plausible that these Spanish inspirations coincide with the terno’s Spanish influences and its appearance in this collection.

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Model in tulle camisa inspired by the butterfly sleeves in 1910 from Vinta Gallery.

A younger generation of designers, who are members of the Filipino diaspora, have created brands encouraging women to wear the terno as ready-to-wear to strengthen Filipino pride. One example is Vinta Gallery, a Filipino-Canadian brand producing modern chic ternos, while offering a living wage for the artisans sewing the butterfly-sleeved pieces.  

Several models walking up and down the runway in different styles of Ao Dai

Celebrity attendees at TernoCon 2020.

Since its inception in 2018, the TernoCon has made great leaps into reviving the terno and advocating for its integration back into Filipino high fashion. The TernoCon has quickly become a sought-after event of the season in the Philippines showcasing the best Filipino designers and terno looks. “We wanted to promote the proper construction of the terno’s butterfly sleeves, and we also wanted to allow many of our regional designers to shine on a national level.  It was a great opportunity to bring seasoned designers and aspiring young designers together and be able to pass on design wisdom to the next generation of Filipino designers.”

Photo by Charles Villacruz.  View Larger.


Callahan, April, and Zachary, Cassidy, hosts, “Fashionable Filipinas, an interview with Gino Gonzales.” Dressed: The History of Fashion (podcast), November 6, 2018.

Coo, Stéphanie Marie R. “Clothing and the Colonial Culture of Appearances in Nineteenth Century Spanish Philippines (1820-1896).” History. Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, 2014. English.

Gonzales, Gino (co-author of Fashionable Filipinas: An Evolution of the Philippine National Dress in Photographs 1860-1960). Email correspondence, December 18, 2018.

Quito, Anne, “Modern Filipino Women are Reclaiming their National Identity in Dazzling Fashion.” Last modified November 17, 2018. 

The Filipiniana Dress: The Rebirth of the Terno.” Vinta Gallery online. May 14, 2019. 

Learn More

Video: ‘Philippine Dress, Session 1: Traje de Mestiza‘ by Gino Gonzales, Philippine Cultural Education Program. 2020.

Video: ‘Philippine Dress, Session 2: Terno (Part 1)‘ by Gino Gonzales, Philippine Cultural Education Program. 2020.

Video: ‘Philippine Dress, Session 3: Terno (Part 2)‘ by Gino Gonzales, Philippine Cultural Education Program. 2020.