Traditional Filipino Wedding Gowns Go Modern

Like many brides-to-be, Jessica Louise Balanban turned to social media to jump-start preparations for her Feb. 22, 2022, wedding in Los Gatos, Calif.

In lieu of hiring a planner, Ms. Balanban, 31, a registered nurse at the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay in San Francisco who lives in San Leandro, Calif., relied on Instagram. Late-night scrolling helped her secure a photographer, videographer, makeup artist and hair stylist. But what she would wear at the reception remained a mystery.

Ms. Balaban had already selected a white fit-and-flare dress for the ceremony, with 3-D florals from top to bottom and off-the-shoulder, tulle sleeves. And after giving it some thought, she realized her reception dress presented an opportunity to honor her Filipino heritage.

Born in the Philippines in 1991 to parents from Kiangan, Ifugao, Ms. Balanban and her family relocated to Vancouver, Canada, when she was an infant. They returned to the Philippines in 1999 before eventually settling in Northern California’s Bay Area. She still has relatives in the Philippines.

On the wedding day, the groom, Johnson Cheung, also 31 and a registered nurse at the UCSF Medical Center at Mount Zion in San Francisco, wanted to honor his Chinese heritage by having a traditional tea ceremony with both sets of parents and family members to symbolize the two sides coming together. So, Ms. Balanban said: “It made me want to add a little bit of my heritage. That’s when I was like, You know what, this is the perfect opportunity to do a Filipiniana dress as my reception dress.”

The term Filipiniana can include a variety of styles. There’s the form-fitting terno dress, which is known for its tall, visually striking butterfly sleeves. It is partly derived from the baro’t saya, or “blouse and skirt,” style. Indigenous women wore the baro’t saya before Spain colonized the Philippines in 1521. During the Spanish colonial rule, the traje de mestiza, a.k.a. the María Clara gown, became popular among the aristocracy. Today, the terno outfit is an evolution of both styles and is just one example of Filipiniana attire.

Across the United States and Canada, designers from companies like Jillian Joy, Silviyana and Vinta Gallery are putting their own sartorial spin on traditional Filipiniana outfits. In doing so, they’re guiding a new generation of brides, like Ms. Balanban, who are eager to connect with their heritage through fashion.

On Instagram, Ms. Balanban stumbled upon the work of Jillian Joy San Juan, 26, a Filipino Canadian designer based in Toronto. She saw Ms. San Juan’s July 2021 post on Instagram detailing the design process for her own custom terno wedding gown with detachable sleeves. Ms. Balanban knew she had found the designer for her dress.

The dress she ordered, she said, “fit like a glove and just made me feel so good about this whole decision of incorporating a little bit of me into our wedding.”

Ms. San Juan started sewing in high school. She went on to study design and business at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University). After graduating in 2018, Ms. San Juan started a bridal line with a focus on Filipiniana fashion. Through her designs, she sensed an opportunity to help bridge a gap between generations.

“It turned into something bigger,” Ms. San Juan said. “I was able to find that connection with my heritage and culture, and find more of an identity as a Filipino woman.”

For international clients unable to meet Ms. San Juan in her Toronto studio, she aims to ship out their finished garments two to three months ahead of their wedding date — so they can have it locally altered. “Which is similar to if you were to order a dress from another boutique,” she said. “Some alterations are inevitable either way.”

At the Oct. 22, 2022, wedding of Celina Ces Magnaye and Matthew Magnaye, which took place in Washington, the Filipino American bride and groom wore traditional attire. Ms. Ces Magnaye, 33, a social media manager at Sensis, a marketing agency in Arlington, Va., chose a custom Jillian Joy gown with a sweetheart neckline, lace detailing along the bodice and terno sleeves. She accessorized with a bridal fan from the Filipino-owned business Cambio & Co.

“The top portion of the dress and the sleeves are covered in a very leafy floral lace,” Ms. Ces Magnaye said.

Mr. Magnaye, 33, a security program officer at the U.S. State Department, wore a custom barong tagalog, a formal shirt usually made of a lightweight fabric that is both sheer and stiff. It was sourced from his family’s hometown in the Filipino province of Batangas and, by coincidence, happened to match Ms. Ces Magnaye’s dress.

The groomsmen, the groom’s father and the ring bearer were outfitted in custom barongs, too. The bridesmaids wore custom pañuelos, or triangular-shaped scarves, for the church ceremony. Guests were encouraged, though not required, to wear Filipino formal attire.

“We were joking that this should be the Filipino Met Gala or something,” Ms. Ces Magnaye said. “We just really wanted to showcase and highlight our culture. That’s one of the reasons we decided to get married in October, since it’s Filipino American History Month. Everything was very Filipino inspired.”

Seychelle Wilmouth started her Filipiniana bridal brand, Silviyana, in 2016. Ms. Wilmouth, 34, of Redmond, Wash., works directly with a cooperative of women weavers in the Aklan province of the Philippines. They are skilled in using hand-woven pineapple fabrics, called piña, and banana-fiber-based fabrics, called abacá. These materials are then used in Silviyana’s designs.

“Even though we’re trying to define our culture, it’s interesting because groups of our Filipino American clients are actually quite different in their opinions about what our culture is,” Ms. Wilmouth said. “We at Silviyana just try to explore what that would be for that person.”

Custom dresses can take several months to complete. “Right now, I’m already fully booked until basically the end of 2023,” Ms. San Juan said. “And I’ve already started taking orders for 2024.”

The growing popularity of Filipiniana wedding attire outside the Philippines builds upon centuries of craftsmanship that the island nation has long cultivated.

“There’s a really vibrant history of gorgeous design in the Philippines,” said Denise Cruz, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. She has extensively studied fashion history in the Philippines and is the author of “Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina.”

Regardless of distance from the motherland, Filipiniana wedding dresses are resonating with brides ready to embrace centuries-old customs in a way that authentically speaks to them.