Monday, November 27, 2023



Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines, 1898–1941 by Genevieve Alva Clutario

(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023)


The Empire of Fashion

Roland Barthes once wrote that fashion “is a kind of machine for maintaining meaning without ever fixing it.” Further, that this meaning “is distributed according to a kind of revolutionary grace.”It is this distribution of meaning, always shifting and contingent in the midst of trans-imperial violence, anti- colonial revolution, and war that Genevieve Alva Clutario deftly explores in her deeply researched book, Beauty Regimes. She draws on Barthes’s notion of the fashion system—that is, an understanding of clothing as the production of social meaning and power predicated on networks of labor, goods, and services reliant on infrastructures of transportation, mass media, and commerce. Clutario shows how the ideology and materiality of beauty constitute regimes as well as regimens that were crucial to the formation of U.S. colonial rule and Filipino nationalist responses to it. 

Focusing on the period from the end of Spanish rule to the rise of U.S. hegemony and the beginnings of the Japanese occupation in the Philippines, the author demonstrates how the production of beauty by way of clothing was a means of establishing and policing gendered norms for both U.S. and Filipina women. However, such norms were never settled. They were always in process as fashion became a battleground between imperialist and nationalist notions of what counted as beautiful and therefore civilized. The imbrication of civilization with ideals of beauty brought with it enormous stakes. It shaped both the perceptions and behavior of Americans and Filipinos as they regarded one another across political divides. For the former, it was a way of measuring Filipino abilities for self-government which they found wanting; for the latter, it was a means of judging and often subverting U.S. claims of racial superiority. For example, Clutario relates the stories of U.S. women who accompanied the Taft Commission which traveled all over the archipelago in 1900 to investigate the situation in the country. Along the way, they sought to interview Filipinos, especially those of the wealthier class, about conditions in the country. White women sought to befriend Filipinas but often failed to impress the latter with their simple white clothing. Instead, they found themselves subject to what we might think of as the brown/mestiza gaze and judged as fashionably inept compared to the lavish Parisian fashions that wealthy Filipina women put on display. By exhibiting their sumptuous gowns, jewelry, and other ornaments, wealthy Filipina women accentuated their cosmopolitan difference from Americans, thereby upending the latter’s notions of Filipino backwardness. 

This war of beauty continued during the annual Manila Carnival. Patterned after the American Expositions of the early twentieth century, the Carnival was meant as a counterinsurgent effort that sought to highlight the economic and political progress of colonization amid the backdrop of the Filipino-American war. Begun in 1907 and lasting through the 1930s, the Manila Carnival featured beauty pageants where “queens” were elected to reign over the Carnival’s realm. Newspapers encouraged readers to buy votes for their favorite candidates. The triumphant queens came to be seen as the representatives of the nation. As public figures, they received wide attention for their education and wealth, undermining U.S. stereotypes of Filipinas as ugly, scheming, and unattractive. The beauty pageants thus became an important stage for contesting U.S. imperialist assumptions of Filipino cultural disabilities while forging an imagined community around the spectacular appearance of beauty queens. As in other places (and to this day), women became important icons as well as indices for evoking images of nationalist modernity. In their vivid splendor, they became touchstones for forging an anti-imperialist political aesthetics. 

A crucial part of the fashion system for the production of beauty was native labor. In what is perhaps the most detailed examination of the intersection between the political and symbolic economies of the embroidery industry in the Philippines, Clutario shows how colonial rule relied on the extraction of Filipina labor to make and market embroidered products to supply the growing demand in the U.S. market. Given the shortage of embroidered goods from Europe as a result of World War I and the union organizing among garment workers in the United States, U.S. manufacturers turned to the Philippines as a source of skilled and cheap labor. Sold in major department stores, the undergarments supplied by Filipina workers to American women made for a kind of colonial intimacy among the two groups who never met, and yet whose bodies were brought together through the mediation of commerce and clothes. 

Native workers were recruited from working class and peasant communities whose vulnerability made them available for systematic exploitation. Public schools and women’s prisons became primary sites for the production of embroidered goods, facilitated in 1907 by reorganizing the Bureau of Prisons to become part of the Department of Instruction. Industrial schools along the lines of the Carlisle School emerged to teach “pupil-workers” the basics of embroidery work while women prisoners were organized into factory-like facilities that produced lace and undergarments for export. Officials and teachers used various technologies of discipline and surveillance to govern their conduct and ensure efficiency under the guise of making “good citizens” among students and prisoners. Workers were praised for their skill by advertisers and even exhibited for visiting American tourists. But once the embroidery business lost steam in the later 1920s, they were blamed for their lack of discipline and imagination. Hence they were exploited, then scapegoated, as global conditions demanded. 

By the 1930s, as the Great Depression gripped the world, the Commonwealth government was established in the Philippines in preparation for independence while another possible war loomed on the horizon. Responding to these uncertain times, the fashion system developed the “terno,” the glamourous Philippine gown that became a symbol of national identity among the mestizo elite. A hybrid of Filipino and European styles, the terno projected the image of the modern Filipina, one whose privilege arose from a sense of autonomy from colonial rule as well as their distinction from the rising middle and working classes. The development of the terno coincided with the emergence of “dictatorial modistas,” designers who assumed the power of tastemakers to dictate new styles to reshape elite culture. This reconfiguration of elite culture became more urgent as new forms of the modern woman arose to challenge patriarchal norms: the “flapper” and the “coed.” The former was denounced by critics as the “sinful” aping of Western styles, with dresses that displayed the flesh and sexual desires of young women, while the latter was a source of unease insofar as it threatened to place women in positions of intellectual prominence and driving ambition. The terno was meant to counter these threats, redrawing the line that separated the mestizo female elite from those below. By reinforcing class divisions and gender norms, the fashion system worked to recolonize, as it were, Philippine society even as it broached the promise of a modern nation free from colonial rule. 

Clutario concludes her book with a history of the trade wars that arose between U.S. and Japanese importers of cotton on the eve of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. U.S. manufacturers lobbied the Philippine legislature to set up protections for their cotton, showing how the Japanese-U.S. war was preceded by the trade wars over clothing materials. By the late 1940s, designers and fashion magazines were introducing “designs for evacuation” using khaki as the essential fabric, one that had colonial origins, for anticipating yet another war that would bring about massive social transitions. 

Beauty Regimes is a remarkable book, one that compels us to see U.S. rule and Filipino national history in a new light. By calling attention to the modernizing forces of beauty and fashion, it furnishes us with a way of thinking about the aesthetics and politics of colonialism and anti-colonial resistance and the relations of race, gender, and class they give rise to. 



1. Quoted in Anatole Broyard, “Clothing as Language,” New York Times, July 2, 1983. Diplomatic History, Vol. 00, No. 0 (2023). VThe Author(s) 2023. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:



Vicente L. Rafael, author of The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte and Professor, University of Washington, Seattle.


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