In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, art curator and writer Jennelyn Tumalad recalls how her style has been shaped by her Filipinx heritage.
Almost every time I shop for clothes I go through the same emotional rollercoaster: I grab clothes half-heartedly and nervously prepare myself for the inevitable mental beating clothes communicate to me and my body in the dressing room. Again I always find myself in the same place, in front of the dressing room mirror, unhappy with what I see before me. Clothes that are most accessible to me in America tell me through their European slender and tall fit, that me and my short Filipina body are not normal and do not represent beauty or fashion.
Through the lack of representation of Filipinx faces and body types in fashion media, I have struggled to understand how I should truly represent myself with fashion. Every shopping trip has made me look at the body that my mother gave me with sadness and a desire to change it to fit into the framework of those that have colonized my mind and my ancestors before me. It has been a long journey to be aware of these systems, let alone do the work trying to dismantle this thinking while I learn to love my body and dress it.
As a Filipina American, I actively try to be aware of the systems at play when I struggle with fit and style while trying on clothes designed by European companies. The insecurities I face in the dressing room are in part caused by a history of colonization, and the thoughts I’m fighting have been and will be, a lifelong fight against colonial mentality. It’s a residual mindset in which those coming from communities with histories of colonization (in my case, Spain and America) find things associated with their indigenous roots to be lesser than those of their colonizers.
In these moments I often think about my grandmother. I sometimes want to write my lola a letter apologizing. I want to tell her that I’m sorry for forcing the body she handed down to me into clothes that squeeze every ounce of confidence from me that I worked so hard to build. That I’m sorry for how much I’ve wanted to look like bodies that were not hers or my mothers, even though their bodies and the dusters they lived in, brought me life, love, and comfort from the world that has only ever taught me to not want to be in my own skin. I realize, since I’ve taken an explicit dive into what it really means to decolonize my mind and all the values that have been socialized into me, that it is my lola and my mom I find myself inspired by the most when thinking of what decolonizing my fashion and body image looks like.
As I’ve gone through my own journey of understanding how my body fits into American fashion, I use my style as a way to showcase all parts of myself how I wish it was celebrated in larger fashion media. I do this by treasuring inherited clothes and accessories from my mother and pairing these items with pieces that make them feel new and contemporary, whether that’s a pop of bright color or a modern silhouette.
In special cases, I’ve made an effort to take clothes with special meaning to me like the dusters my mom brings me from the Philippines and use their fabric to be made into custom-fitted pieces made by Filipinx designers, like Lorén Ibach (aka @Mangobiitch designs), so that I know the clothes touching my body will honor it in the way my body deserves.
I like to call what I’ve been sporting these days “duster chic” meets tropical futurism. Tropical futurism to me is what decolonized Filipinx fashion looks like. It honors the history we’ve struggled with through years of colonization. It is loud with print and color as a way to claim space through our history of being silenced in America and the Asian American Pacific Islander community, regardless of how large our population is within both. It celebrates brownness, flat noses, and all body types. It does not self-orientalize but instead uplifts Filipinx styles that the Filipinx diaspora may have lost through their own struggles with the white hegemony.
I dress in a way that honors all aspects of my heritage: struggles and all. Where my clothes carry the stories of my mother and lola. Where my bright accessories catch eyes and speak loudly in a way I always aim for after a life of being told to fade into the back. Where my clothes are unapologetic for the curves they hug and space I will continue to take as a proud Filipina American always doing her best to be patient with herself and proud of the body she was given by her mother, and all the women before her.