Bagobo Shirt

Artist: Artist Once Known
Culture/People: Filipino
Place: Philippines
Media: Indigo-dyed cloth, hand-cut mother-of-pearl shells
Dims: 16 x 48 x .5 in. (40.64 x 121.92 x 1.27 cm)
Date: c. 1920
RTC No: AS0041
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


Weaving holds a special place in the culture of Philippine Indigenous people, with communities all over the archipelago sustaining their own practices. For centuries, women of Philippine tribes have used fibers harvested from local plants, such as abaca, piña, hemp, and native cotton, dying them with natural substances to create striking works of art. Examples of woven cloth have been found in burial sites dating from the 13th century. Textiles were not only used as adornment but are symbols of wealth, sacred gifts to deities, and treasured family heirlooms. The Bagobo people are one of the largest groups of southern Mindanao, renowned for their crafts skills and colorful attire. The item in the Coe Collection is a traditional t-shaped woman’s blouse dyed with indigo and embellished with handmade nacre hoops. These top garments are short-waisted and used with tube skirts made from a fabric called inabal. The cloth is woven from abaca fibers, which are dyed using a resist dying technique called Ikat. 

Abaca fibers, also known as Manila Hemp, are stripped from the trunk of a non-edible banana tree called Musa Textiles. They are then pounded and dried before individually knotted into threads long enough for weaving. Bagobo women use a back strap loom, and beeswax is applied to the fibers. The finished textile is then burnished with a cowrie shell, making it supple and shiny. These inabal clothes were cared for by dry cleaning them with more beeswax. The abaca fiber is strong enough to be made into ropes and fishing nets.

Philippine indigo from the Indigofera tinctora plant was a widely used form of obtaining steadfast blue, making it a major export until the early 1900s when synthetic dyes were introduced. The name Manila evolved from a Tagalog expression meaning “where the indigo comes from.” Other natural colors are obtained from plants gathered from their surroundings, many of which also have medicinal properties, such as turmeric and the fruit known as noni. Indigo, along with other natural dyes, is being revived due to its majestic tone and the fact that it is a non-timber product that can help save Philippines’s native forests by revitalizing community livelihoods.

Traditionally, the Bagobo practice swidden farming in their mountain homeland, where farmers slash, burn, cultivate, and then leave the land to regenerate. Their social organization included chieftains, elders, and female shamans called Mabalian. The Mabalian were also weavers, but it was a female spirit called Baipandi who taught women to weave, the ikat technique as well as embroidery.

Male members of the Bagobo also contribute to their tribe being known as one of the most colorful and elaborately dressed in the Philippines. Men wore a short, embroidered, bolero-type jacket and tight knee-length pants. The colors of their clothing, headgear, and swords would vary according to their status.

Another fabulous Phillippine textile is known as piña. As with abaca, fibers stripped from the long leaves of an inedible pineapple plant are washed, combed, and knotted into long threads. The thread is then woven into a gossamer thin fabric, which lent itself to painstaking needlework that was very popular in the 1700s to 1800s. Piña cloth is sheer and stiff, making it perfect for tropical climates. The Barong Tagalog is a formal, long-sleeved, embroidered men’s shirt traditionally made from piña. Although production of these natural textiles decreased over the 20th century, new generations in search of more sustainable textiles are turning towards these ancient fibers.


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