“Brief-less” in the SEA Games: Igorot Attire and Authenticity

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✍ Scott Magkachi Saboy

“Wrong gramming” aside, To brief or not to brief? seems to be a fitting question for the men’s arnis anyo competition in the recently concluded 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

ChriSamuel T. Delfin, an Igorot arnisador who eventually won the gold medal for the event, risked being disqualified from the game by insisting to wear his g-string without briefs. One report quotes Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri explaining that “In the Ifugao Igorot culture, it’s an insult to the cultural traditions if you wear undergarments under the loincloth.”

Another news outfit has Zubiri saying, “He is a proud Igorot and he is proud of his lineage. We had some problems because he wanted to wear his bahag without any brief. Delfin didn’t want because he said as an Igorot, it is an insult to wear a brief or something under the bahag.”

Although the article skirted around the issue with its headline, “SEA Games: ‘Proud Igorot’ fought for right to wear bahag in arnis competition,” it seems to clear to me that the bone of contention was not whether he could wear a loincloth, but whether he could wear it without briefs. Eventually, the issue was resolved with a compromise: Delfin had to put on a thong, just in case his loincloth gets briefly untangled leaving him unintentionally displaying a hidden form which would have left the audience extraordinarily tongue-tied and breathless.

Delfin’s dazzling performance should indeed be celebrated. It’s no small feat to perfect your craft in this or any other form of martial art. He is a bit of a Bruce Lee executing sinawali and redonda moves.

His unwavering loyalty to his indigenous heritage is also truly admirable. If the reports are right about his ethnicity, this Ifugao native reminds us of Team Lakay‘s Kevin Belingon who might have been catapulted to global fame but remains firmly attached to his local roots.

As a student of both martial arts and Indigenous Studies, I am blown away by his explosive skill set as I am fascinated by his take on an aspect of his culture. Delfin claimed that — in Zubiri’s words, at least — “it is an insult to wear a brief or something under the bahag.”

One could nitpick by asking whether the thong he eventually wore actually qualifies for “a brief or something,” but I think the more important question to address is whether it is wrong to wear briefs underneath the bahag.

I don’t know if all Ifugaos think so, but several other Cordilleran culture bearers I know share the same sentiment. Others even go as far as saying that briefs make the native attire inauthentic. They all have the right to believe so and we should respect that right.

I just don’t think such an opinion should be imposed on every Cordilleran native. I don’t mean to say this highly accomplished arnisador wants to impose it on everyone. I don’t think he does. I think he was simply asserting his personal preference.

I happen to believe though that briefs and bahag can go together, like lingeries and tapis (native woven skirt) can. Now, let me weave into the discussion three strands of relevant key issues involving indigenous cultures.

Generalizations. Igorot this, Igorot that… Insiders and outsiders often make the mistake of generalizing traits, beliefs and practices when talking about the highlanders of northern Philippines. When a Cordilleran native is featured by the media, s/he often becomes the representative of an imagined monolothic indigenous culture and is even assumed to speak for this culture.

But in reality the Cordillera has no singular culture or one set of people to speak of, because it is a cultural and political territory with at least 15 languages and 50 major and minor ethnic groups. There is no way one person or group could represent the worldviews of these communities. So when an Ifugao finds the wearing of briefs under the bahag offensive or aesthetically unacceptable, it doesn’t necessarily mean most or all Cordilleran natives think so — anymore than when a Kalinga objects to being called an “Igorot” one automatically assumes that all Kalingas take offense at being named so.

Aesthetics. In the ’80s when g-strings and native skirts were the daily wear for many old folks in my town, I don’t remember anyone frowning at someone’s use of briefs under the loincloth. Even in local gatherings, there often was a mix of men in g-strings with and without briefs during a tajok (native dance) and no one made a fuss about it. 

I could be wrong, but it seems that some people get riled up about this mostly during competitive or touristy native dance performances where an aesthetic template dictates forms and movements.  In these events, choreographers understandably have to impose on the dancers and on the whole performance a sense of taste and style that fits the theme, type of viewers, criteria for judging, local norms, environmental conditions, and other related concerns. Everything has to be seamless, well-coordinated — sounds and steps, musics and movements, clothes and color combinations.  It would be horrifying (or as some yuppies today say, “an Ermergerd! moment”)  for the choreographer and amusing at best for the camera-wielding tourist to see a performer with white briefs sticking out of his g-strings while everyone else in his group are in skin-tone underpants or have no underpants at all.  It’s like watching a high school graduation parade in which all students are in their proper red and black uniforms except one buffoon who chose to wear a white shirt to match his new blue jeans just because he wanted to bid his alma mater goodbye in style.

In local community performances though when native dances are made to perform rituals, honor ancestral spirits, enjoy a reunion, celebrate an achievement, or just have fun, who really cares about having or not having briefs under one’s loincloth? Well, one with touristy aesthetics maybe. Or someone who imbues native attire with sacred significance. But for those who take part in the tatajok (native dances with gong accompaniment) in the name of fun and fellowship, the sights and sounds of communitism take center stage while the sense and sensibility or the gaze and gratification of the outsider are flung to the outer darkness.

Authenticity. What is ethnic, authentic, or ethnically authentic is a complex — even contentious — issue in the study of cultures. In this case, the claim that a man’s underpants makes his native attire inauthentic is problematic. For one, it misses the fact that when it comes to clothing, native cultures have always adopted materials and styles from other cultures.

There was a time when some elderly Igorots thought it fashionable to pair an americana (coat) with a g-string, and it was okay. So it puzzles me why an underwear with a g-string would create furor among some Igorots today.

Two, it overlooks a glaring inconsistency in practice. Many old women in Kalinga during my boyhood days went about their daily chores topless with only a ka-in (my tribe’s term for the native woven skirt) to cover themselves from the waist down to the knee. If you’re looking for an authentic women’s ethnic attire at the time, that was how it looked like. So if being brief-less makes a man’s native garb authentic, so should being lingerie-less make a woman’s native attire genuine.

Then women started wearing leotards to match their woven skirts, and continued to accessorize their native attire with anything from fancy hats to skin-tone leggings and none of these seemed to offend culture bearers.

But when it came to men, the etiquette of proper attire becomes all of a sudden so exacting that the karsulsilyo turns into a symbol of inauthenticity: g(-stringed)-men cannot insult their own culture, so they just have to be brief-less in the SEA Games, in Seattle,and elsewhere.

So to brief, or not to brief? For me, that is really not a/the question.

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