Back in 2019, I wrote a column called “Pajamas” aimed at a specific sort of reader; one completely comfortable with a narrator whose tongue was planted firmly in his cheek.
Subsequent events, however, have made me question my judgment.
That column was inspired by something I’d observed in a household employee during our early days in the Philippines, specifically, that the young woman insisted on working in her pajamas.
“At first I thought I was mistaken,” I wrote. “It was still early, I told myself. She had just prepared our breakfast and not yet had time to change. But, as the day wore on and she continued performing her duties without the benefit of street clothes or, dare I suggest, the services of a toothbrush, well, I realized that my thinking might just have to change.”
Could the culture really be that different, I wondered, in this unfamiliar country to which I’d immigrated “with nary a thought regarding what I should wear?” Was this daytime pajama-wearing routine truly a national phenomenon, or just a millennial thing? And God forbid it was millennial, had the global culture already evolved beyond my grasp while I was looking the other way?
I can now conclude with some confidence that indeed it has. The basis for that conclusion is a recent report regarding a judge at the 2022 Miss Philippines beauty pageant who showed up in his boxer shorts. “I chose to wear something made by a Pinoy,” insisted Cecilio Asuncion, founder of a US-based transgender modeling agency whose ensemble also included a traditional barong along with leather boots and knee-high socks. “I love my country.”
The story was reported on a website called Coconuts Manila under a headline relaying Asuncion’s purported claim that his unusual attire represented “Filipino culture.”
My reaction: well, there it is, finally, in black and white.
Then I saw something else that further refined my understanding. They were images of an event that occurred in 2016 but hadn’t reached my gaze until now; photos of fashion models walking down the runway at that year’s Spring Fashion Week in Paris, France. Except they weren’t walking alone. Each strutted under the weight of another model “worn” as an accessory, usually positioned very oddly with butt up and head down.
The extra models were “human knapsacks” illustrating “the burden of life,” audience members explained in social media posts regarding designer Rick Owens’ avant-garde show. “The baggage we all carry is… each other.”
The Huffington Post, dutifully reporting all this, even added a quip of its own. The strange runway spectacles, the paper suggested, “give new meaning to [the idea of] women supporting one another.”
And that’s when the lightbulb flashed on in my head. Wearing pajamas or boxer shorts in public, I realized, is not just a sign of laziness or strange cultural affectation, but a fashion statement uniquely Filipino. Oh my God, I thought, how utterly sophisticated and what a good thing to recognize at last.
Then I read some of the social media reactions to Asuncion’s culturally significant underwear. “Looks like sir forgot to wear pants,” one observer noted matter-of-factly.
Oh damn, I thought, I’m back to square one.
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David Haldane’s latest book, “A Tooth in My Popsicle; And Other Ebullient Essays on Becoming Filipino,” is due out in January. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and sometimes radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.