I CANNOT refuse a personal request from an avid reader of The Manila Times to tackle a seemingly important aspect of the national ritual called the State of the Nation Address, or SONA.

As I always said, the SONA every fourth Sunday of July is where Filipinos of various persuasions really become one in watching the president give a report to Congress about his accomplishments and his vision for the nation. Thus, aside from the traditional protocols and the customary protests, the lawmakers and guests get this one annual opportunity to be noticed and further their advocacies. Thus, the SONA has become a fiesta, or even, as one news report quipped, "The Oscars of the Philippines."

By the time Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, the designer dresses at the SONA had become quite frivolous that those intending to attend the Duterte inauguration were reminded to "dress simply and avoid long dresses, in keeping with the President's modest tastes."

Rep. Shernee Tan-Tambut and husband Capt. John Tambut’s pis syabit-inspired Filipiniana. PHOTO FROM REP. TAMBUT
Rep. Shernee Tan-Tambut and husband Capt. John Tambut’s pis syabit-inspired Filipiniana. PHOTO FROM REP. TAMBUT

Rep. Raoul Manuel’s phoenix barong symbolizes youth’s spirit. PHOTO FROM REP. MANUEL’S TWITTER
Rep. Raoul Manuel’s phoenix barong symbolizes youth’s spirit. PHOTO FROM REP. MANUEL’S TWITTER

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In the recent SONA last July 25, the first of President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., I did not hear any preference for simplicity, and the designer gowns were back. Yet, some used the occasion to also highlight some of the Indigenous peoples and marginalized sectors of our society.

Topnotcher Sen. Robin Padilla, who attended his first Senate session earlier that day in a barong bought in a mall, changed to a Francis Libiran in the SONA which was a suit made of inaul fabric woven by the Maguindanaons (a Times reader, Libby Gallentes reminded me that it was not Maranaoan as earlier reported).

Sen. Pia Cayetano wore a suit of Yakan fabric made by the Cebuano designer O.J. Hoffer who added a modern cropped blazer. Sen. Loren Legarda, known for her culture and arts advocacies, especially for that of the Indigenous Filipinos, opted for a Patis Tesoro terno whose design provenance went back perhaps 20 decades. Marga Gonzales, the wife of Civil Service Commission Chairman Karlo Nograles, wore a very original terno using textiles from Maguindanao.

KusugTausug party-list Rep. Shernee Tan-Tambut wore a terno by Francis Libiran enhanced with a pis syabit bodice and skirt accent. Her husband, Capt. John Tambut, matched his wife's costume with a barong Tagalog whose design mimicked the traditional keyhole neckline of Tausug clothing and the embroidery on the sleeves echoing the geometric pis-siyabit pattern in his wife's gown.

Despite the memo issued for the SONA that "wearing of clothes with political messages shall not be allowed," the Makabayan bloc representatives, who used to put slogans in their clothes not only during the SONA but even during the regular sessions of Congress, resorted to creative resistance. No slogans but full of symbolism.

Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas strode into the red carpet with a skirt of Filipino design with artwork representing the economic problems facing Filipino women today: the soaring prices of oil, food and basic goods. ACT Teachers' France Castro came in a pitch-black terno,with a drawing of a teacher bearing a torch, making a positive statement about teachers being the light amid historical distortion. My favorite would be the barong of Kabataan Rep. Raoul Manuel which also bore a positive message: his shirt showed a large blue phoenix handpainted by youth artist Albert Raqueno signifying that the youth will always rise up from difficult situations and dark times.

The vice president, Sara Zimmerman Duterte-Carpio, herself wore a Bagobo-Tagabawa dress to honor the Indigenous peoples across the country. This was criticized by Bayan Muna Rep. Eufemia Cullamat as a "token gesture" because she had previously "red-tagged" some Lumad teachers and students in Davao City. The VP's reply was straightforward; she didn't mince words. She condemned the communist New People's Army, accusing it of using the Lumad and dragging them to the war. Carpio made it personal by referring directly to representative Cullamat: "And as a mother of a dead NPA fighter, she should apologize to her daughter for sending her to her untimely gruesome demise." I felt sad at this exchange, but it sure sent us into a national conversation.

George Harrison sang in a Beatles song, "You know that what you eat you are." Although it is true, we shouldn't be judged based on what we wear. I have learned in life that we dress appropriately not to impress but to give respect to the host and to the occasion. When we attend formal and state occasions, we dress up not to show our elitism, but to show the dignity of our nation.

But after the opening session of Congress, the hard work begins so all of us in government and in the private sector contribute to solutions so we can adequately give opportunities for the poor so they can have a house to live, food to eat and clothes to wear, be educated and have dignity.