16th Century Hair and Hair Care in Pre-Colonial Philippines

16th Century Hair and Hair Care in Pre-Colonial Philippines
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Hairstyles change from generation to generation. Today the typical hairstyles among Filipino’s is a buzzcut for men, or just keeping it short in general, and having long hair among women while coloring and dying the hair is pretty much a thing among Filipina’s both young and old. Today many people see long hair among men as strange, or only for those who are in a rock band *cough* my Tatay *cough*. However long hair among our ancestors, both men and women, was both a cultural and spiritual thing.

In the 15th-16th Centuries, our ancestors were very prideful of their hair. In the 1520’s, the Visayans in Homonhon, an island in the province of present day Eastern Samar, were seen and recorded to have hair down to their waists. In Surigao, that is located on the northeastern tip of Mindanao, men tended to pull their hair back into a knot at the nape of their neck. While in Butuan, another well known region in northeastern Mindanao, a King was known to wear his hair at shoulder length. Others would gather their hair and wrap it in a knot with a headcloth or turban known as a putong.

Others such as the Tagalogs however did choose to cut their hair, mainly from the influences of Islam considering at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards the Tagalog kingdoms Maynila also known as Kota Seludong and Tondo were already Islamized kingdoms with a mix of indigenous animistic and Hindu-Buddhist beliefs. In the Visaya’s there was a saying, Inalotan ka! This was actually more of a curse back then, especially toward a Tagalog, who tended to cut their hair short. Alot, was also a term the Visayans called the Tagalogs who had short hair, which means shorn, according to one of the early Visayan dictionaries by Fr. Alonso de Mentrida in his 1637 dictionary, Bocabulario de la lengua Bisaya-Hiligueyna y Haria de las islas de Panay y Sugbu y para demas las islas.

In the Visaya’s, cutting one’s hair was a symbol of punishment or mourning. It was only cut when they were being punished for a crime as a sort of shame, or someone, a close relative for example, died. In this case both the mourner and the person who died, their hair would be cut as a symbol of mourning.

During this time, the surviving relative would cut off their hair, especially the women. It was a sign of deep affection for the dead husband, fathers, etc. With the locks of their cut hair, they either placed it in the casket of their dead loved ones or they kept it as a memoir. If they choose to keep it,  from time to time they took it out and held it in their hands as they wept in memory of the dead person.

Another time where one would cut their hair is if they were expected to go on a very long journey. Known as balata, this was the cutting of hair and leaving it in t heir house until they returned from their long voyage.

Our ancestors took care of their hair very vigorously, to the point they saw their hair as an ornament to be taken care of. Both men and women were known to have flowers in their hair, perfumes from the oils of certain flowers and plants, musk of the civet, ambergris, as well as coating their hair with sesame seed and coconut oils to groom it. Like mentioned above, our ancestors were known to put flowers and other ornaments in their hair as well as perfumes and oils such as sesame seed oil which were believed to encourage luxuriant growth. A perfumed ointment called Bulat, as well as flowers or sesame seed oil would be worked into the hair for fragrance. Datus and warriors preferred the bolder scent of ambergris, civet or musk excretions. Even today, the use of these oils and other indigenous hair care remedies is still used today like gugo, which is a vine that is crushed and dried, then soaked in water to extract the juices to be used as shampoo. Others are Sabila or aloe vera for hair growth and of course the well known and very loved coconut oil that most people growing up in the Philippines probably had their mothers or grandmothers teach them how to extract the oil and use it such as in the case of everyone in my family.

In the records by Antonio de Morga in his 1609 Sucesesos de las Islas Filipinas, he noted that men and women, especially the chiefs, were very clean and neat in their persons and clothing. They dressed their hair carefully, and regard it as being more ornamental when it is very black. He already recorded down the use of gugo, which was was also used in pre-colonial times. In his passage he mentions how the people wash their hair with water that has been boiled with the bark of the vines of the gugo (which is also scientifically known as Entada purseta), that grows in most of the provinces of the Philippines. This remedy is also used in the use of washing clothes and precipitate the gold in the sand of rivers.

Women tended to grow out their hair, at times to the point of reaching ankle length. From this long length of hair they gathered it into a type of chignon, or pusod in Tagalog, as large as the head itself with curls over the forehead. They also added in additional artificial hair extensions (or switches as they were called back in the day) that they called Panta or talabhok which were their crowning glory. They also had combs or suklay made of wood or ivory with intricate carvings to groom themselves.

During this time it was a great offense for a man to touch a woman’s hair without her permission if they were not a relative or lover, to the point it was seen as a crime in society. However, women were known to touch another women’s hair during fights where they would pull each others hair in aggression. This was a very common thing to where the Visayans had a word for this fight of a women pulling on another’s hair, especially the talabhok, that was known as sampolong.

It wasn’t until the arrival of the Spaniards and in later years of colonization did our ancestors start to cut their hair, especially the men. In Alcina’s and the church’s eye’s this act of cutting their hair was an act of “taming their ancient ferocity with the gentleness of the Gospel”. This was because long hair, mainly on the men, was thought to be “uncivilized”, and “barbaric”, and the cutting of their hair to follow the examples of the short hairstyles of the Spaniards was an act of God and of bringing the people out of their “savage ways”.

An example of this in more recent times is during the early 1970’s when the late President Ferdinand Marcos ordered all Filipino men to cut their shoulder length hair during the Martial Law. This was, like the Spaniards before him, was a part “taming their revolutionary spirit.”

Besides the hair on the head, they also groomed facial hair. Not many sported beards, as most removed facial hair with a pair of clam shells that acted like tweezers. In the Visaya’s, both men and women also tended to pluck their eyebrows and form it into thin arcs resembling the crescent moon. For the Tagalogs, men did grow mustaches, called misay, but like many others in the archipelago they tended to get rid of beards, known as gumi.


Barangay: 16th Century Philippine Culture and Society by William  Henry Scott.
Relation of the Western Islands called Filipinas. Diego de Artieda 1573
– Historia de las islas e indios de bisaya (1668) Volume III by Francisco Ignacio Alcina.
– Antonio de Morga in his 1609 Sucesesos de las Islas Filipinas.
– Fr. Alonso de Mentrida in his 1637 dictionary, Bocabulario de la lengua Bisaya-Hiligueyna y Haria de las islas de Panay y Sugbu y para demas las islas.


About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at Pinoy-Culture.com. She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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