The saya and I have a good relationship. I had seen it still being worn in my 1930s childhood, by old women as everyday wear, and by fashionable ladies to balls and grand occasions.
In my mother’s best teenage photos she is always wearing one, with a crown on (as queen), carrying a parasol, or seated on a fake well carrying a clay pot.
A shop in Pagsanjan devoted to the embroidery of saya sleeves was my daddy’s stepgrandmother’s business. And I had heard of La Sampaguita, an exclusive cloth and jewelry store in Misericordia Street (Sta. Cruz district) owned by a grandaunt, Lola Neneng Luna, where Pura Acurdia, the 1930s couturiere of the crème de la crème, sourced her needs.
She would create the embroidery design on the sleeves and La Sampaguita would send it to Manchester, England, (yes!) to be copied and printed on cloth for a matching skirt. (The whole ensemble eventually came to be known by the Spanish term terno, meaning “matching”).
By 1995, I wanted to try another art form—the stage, or more specifically, the ramp. I had observed that fashion shows enjoyed a sizeable and loyal audience. At that time garment shows consisted of just straight ramp walking. How tempting to stir it all up and whip it into some real theater event! Revolving around something Filipino, of course—the saya!
The idea of putting up such a show began with a pile of those old saya that I rediscovered in the old steamer trunk left over from my antique shop days. In 1978 they were selling for P12, P24 or P32. Few customers were interested in old clothes they wouldn’t know what to do with, and fearful of their dead owners haunting them.
The undamaged saya I set aside. The rest were torn, rusted, faded, stained or gnawed by silverfish. Some had only one sleeve or the side of a skirt intact. But they were full of exquisite hand embroidery by the women of old. The only way to make some use of them was to create entirely new costumes out of the salvageable parts.
I cut those embroidered parts into squares, rectangles, parallelograms, half moons or full moons, then running-stitched together those that blended. They made magnificent collages!
That weekend I needed to go to a gallery and had nothing to wear. I sewed together the sides of two of the square collages, like a sandwich board. To all intents and purposes it was an elegant antique blouse and I wore it. A designer-columnist, Christian Espiritu, snapped my picture and it even came out in a newspaper.
Two of my couture friends, Bumbee Ramos and Steve de Leon, had been experimenting with the fabric of old saya earlier than I. It fascinated me how they could compose new apparel out of those pieces. The three of us, however, made very different kinds of collages.
I couldn’t stop collaging those old garments. I was in a white heat, working until 2 or 3 a.m. I thought of framing and exhibiting my fabric collages or, at most, making them into sandwich board blouses.
But a friend, Ida Bugayong, saw them and said they should be made into new kinds of terno or saya. Or even a mini, a midi or a cocktail dress—with spaghetti straps, or strapless, or bare midriff! Ida meant real clothes!
But I couldn’t sew a dress! Besides I didn’t own enough sayas.
“We’ll find some more!” said Ida. “What are your designer friends for if you can’t ask them to make a collection of dresses out of those collages?”
In the concretization of our wildest dreams, there is always a midwife to see to its birth.
I remembered Nora Chanco who had bought a heap of saya from my shop. Did they still exist? “Exist?!” Nora once said. “Of course!” And she revealed a trunkful of old terno which she generously sold back to me.
One day after I thought I put together a big collage from Nora’s old sayas, I ran to Steve. “Do you think you could make this into a dress? I’ll pay you as if you were making the dress for me.”
“Of course!” Steve retorted. “And if you bring the rest I’ll make you a cocktail outfit, a wedding ensemble, an opera coat fit for models.”
His acceptance of my work made me speechless. Steve made 22 pieces. But they were not enough for a fashion show! I thought we should return to my original idea of making the saya.
A Badong statement
Salvador “Badong” Bernal, production designer of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, (now deceased) was the master of the saya. He had even written a book on it.
For many a day, Badong, Ida and I jammed on ideas for Badong’s debut on the fashion ramp with a seasoned non-theater designer, Steve. In a few months I had finished my more than 100 collages of all shapes and sizes. From some of them Badong composed a few traditional-looking
terno. Then broke free! He made innovated off-shoulder saya, belly-
button-baring saya, and some with slits up to the thigh. Also paired some with harem pants, cullotes and draped skirt. A Badong statement.
But a total of 46 costumes did not a fashion show make. There had to be at least 70 pieces, I was told, to make “just a small collection.”
I invited Tessie Macasaet who designed and executed some lounging clothes and play clothes, minis and shorts out of those collages. Then Gigi Escalante joined us, and interspersed the collages with batik fabrics that she herself had made.
Gigi produced a jacket, a tuxedo and a tutu. But we still needed something for the models’ heads. Ann Wizer, installation artist, made fabulous headdresses, including a galleon, out of bamboo, thorns, twigs, sea corals, piña and jusi. We jammed on the costumes tirelessly.
For fashion show direction, we engaged Wanda Louwallein, and for over-all theater direction, CCP’s then resident director, Nonon Padilla. Into the show were introduced bicycles; wind socks shaped like monster heads; pots of fire; piñatas; a mammoth saya top that unfolded in the air, wheeled in an antique dresser and from which hung a Palawan constellation of stars above. There were dancers and an almost-nude man painted gold climbing a rope. What a jam!
By show time, I needed a sponsor or a grant. But one had to describe the project to apply for one. And I never could. What is it you propose to do? They asked. Is it a play? Yes, but more than. Is it a drama? Of course, but more than. A fashion show, I was told. Not quite.
From your description the props seem to be celestial. Yes, but it’s ethnic, too. And the performers sing? Yes, but some of the audience do, too. Is it religion? In a way. Is it comics? Sort of. “Proposal rejected!”
Against all odds, “Jamming on an Old Saya” was staged to critical acclaim in the CCP Main Theater in 1995. Then, under the sponsorship of Ambasassador Jose A. Zaide, the fashion extravaganza travelled abroad, showing twice in Austria in 1998 and once in Germany in 2001.
To this day the costumes are still being requested for exhibition, but they’re already too tattered to stand up.