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The name is a contraction of the Tagalog phrase "baro at sayà". Baro is a generic term glossed as "outfit", "upper dress", or "clothing" (a cognate of the Malay and Indonesian baju), and is also found in the term Barong tagalog, itself a contraction of "baro ng Tagalog" ("Tagalog clothing"). Saya, meanwhile, is a term for a woman's dress, particularly a skirt.
This indigenous mode of dressing in the Philippines was heavily influenced by the country's Spanish Era. In the pre-colonial period, the half-naked style for women consisted only of the saya (long, wrap-around skirt) or tapis (knee-length wrap-around skirt) covering the lower half of the body. The upper torso and breasts were left bare, but this was gradually covered with the "baro", which was a collarless blouse.
The early pre-colonial clothing of groups such as the Tagalogs and Visayans included both the baro and saya made from silk in matching colours. This style was exclusively worn by the women from the upper caste, while those of lower castes wore baro made from pounded white bark fibre. Modern groups whose traditional attire still closely resembles these more ancient styles include the Tumandok of Panay—the only Visayan people that were not hispanised; various Moro peoples; and the indigenous Lumad tribes in the interior of Mindanao.
Due to Spanish colonisation, the basic outfit had evolved into a many-layered ensemble. At the height of its complexity towards the end of the 19th century, the dress consisted of the following pieces:
- kimona, or inner blouse.
- baro, an often gauzy outer shirt with fine embroidery and wide sleeves.
- pañuelo or piano shawl, starched to achieve a raised look.
- naguas or starched petticoat. The name is derived from the Spanish enagua, and is mentioned in the folk song Paru-parong Bukid ("Farmland Butterfly").
- saya or the skirt proper. This is laid over the naguas and either bunched at the back to mirror the then-fashionable polonaise or given a de cola or finely-embroidered train.
- tapis, a descendant of the pre-colonial wrap-around skirt, which covers the upper half of the saya. Upper-class women could afford to have intricate tapis made of fine lace, while poorer ladies donned tapis in plainer, opaque fabrics.
Some variations of the baro't saya are the Maria Clara gown, the ensemble having the addition of the alampáy or pañuelo, a large kerchief or shawl wrapped around the shoulders that may be drawn over the head as a makeshift veil.
The ternó (which was often a single piece sometimes disposed of the pañuelo altogether), has butterfly sleeves and streamlined look which mirrored the then-current tastes and aesthetics of the American colonists. This design was especially popularized by the former First Lady Imelda Marcos.
The Balintawák was a simplified version of the dress popular with the masses, with the saya being knee-length and the pañuelo replaced with a small cloth draped on one shoulder. Women wearing this style would sometimes cover their head in a kerchief of the same fabric as the draped cloth and the saya or tapis.