6 timeless lessons in style from ‘La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten’

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there is anything to take away from Chona Recto-Kasten, it is that class cannot be bought.

“La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten” follows the life and times of the twentieth century gentlewoman and socialite, as told by her daughter Techie Ysmael-Bilbao and Rogue magazine’s founding editor Jose Mari Ugarte.

Claro Recto’s youngest daughter was a fashion icon, jetsetter, and all-around professional in etiquette. She trained Philippine Airlines flight stewardesses in the ways of culture. She was a staple presence in fashion launches and shows, a sought-after model despite not being formally trained.

The book collects statements from friends, news clippings, magazine features, and photographs that make this account of Recto-Kasten both personal and archival. Interspersed between these profiles is a deeply private account of the ups and downs in her family history. At times for the reader, it almost seems voyeuristic; you wonder if these intimate and troubled moments — from the passing of her husband Johnny Ysmael to her tumultuous second marriage with American businessman Hans Kasten — are things you are meant to know. But these are also the aspects that make Chona Recto-Kasten, the supposedly divine, human.

Younger readers might feel a generation gap at work, one Ysmael-Bilbao is aware of. She notes how nowadays it is acceptable to show more skin, or to wear jeans to parties. It also brushes over tensions between the old and the nouveaux rich. And these changes may be economic and social too, predicated on the progress of women and economic success.

The key to accessing “La Divina” is to draw on similarities — girls will be girls, whatever age they are. Recto-Kasten might as well have been your fashion blogger today, brought back in time, with her photos in Greece and New York, and then those posing in bed and in her backyard. She was even a Pond’s girl back in 1956, back when they used product sketches instead of photos.

She was, as one would call it nowadays, an influencer — a woman of her time and yet ahead of it. Some of the lessons on fashion on style that she posits are timeless. Here are a few.

“She was … never into signature brands just because they were ‘it’ or status items to have,” wrote designer Chito Vijandre on Chona Recto-Kasten. Photo courtesy of ANVIL PUBLISHING

Stock up on basics.

In a tip to Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc for Feminique Magazine, Recto-Kasten says that basic dresses in “navy, white, brown, and beige” are a must-have, and best for busy days when one “will be winging from one end of town to the other.”

A firm believer of “stylish simplicity,” she held the rule of thumb that less is more. Once she managed to steal the show at the Kahirup Ball wearing, as Ugarte puts it, “a starkly simple terno” from Christian Espiritu — an appearance that threw the then-novice designer into the spotlight. Her daughter is quoted as saying: “It didn’t have a single bead, and Manila still talks about it.”

Not every piece should be a designer piece.

Even as she patronized designer clothing, Recto-Kasten said: “Clothes do not have to be expensive, or be of the finest material or tailoring, but it is important that it is carried well and must suit the time and occasion.”

“She was … never into signature brands just because they were ‘it’ or status items to have,” wrote designer Chito Vijandre, saying that she was peeved when people dressed just to show off jewelry. Ysmael-Bilbao laments that today’s best dressed have become a show of cash, with less focus on “natural glamor… and sheer simplicity.” Despite her financial capability, Recto-Kasten knew money was not everything.

“La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten” collects statements from friends, news clippings, magazine features, and photographs that make this account of Recto-Kasten both personal and archival. Photo courtesy of ANVIL PUBLISHING

Never dress to be noticed.

Vijandre also said that Recto-Kasten never dressed for attention. “[Her] look was always very relaxed, even if it was a very formal affair,” he wrote. “She had the gift of putting things together with élan, in a fresh way that was unusual but always looked right.”

Recto-Kasten expressed, on more than one occasion, that it was better to be underdressed than overdressed. She believed that comfort preceded everything. “If one is not comfortable, then one can never look naturally elegant or confident … The outfit must look part of you.”

Love local.

“She was very supportive of Filipino designers, even if her frequent travels abroad gave her access to the best of international fashion,” said Vijandre. Recto-Kasten wore Ramon Valera, Salvacion Lim Higgins, and Ben Farrales, among many others.

“She was kind and helpful to people who needed a break,” wrote Espiritu, who went on to cultivate a lifelong friendship with her. “She bravely took a chance by wearing the creation of an unknown like me when she graced the Kahirup Ball in an utterly simple trainees gown I made. And as they say, the rest was history.”

Chona in front of an antique mirror at Emme’s home in New Manila, when she was newly wed to Daddy Johnny. Photo courtesy of ANVIL PUBLISHING

Be genuine, even when others are not.

The woman was successful not only for what she wore, but how she carried herself — that included how she handled her detractors. She was unperturbed by gossip. Public relations executive Vera Isberto recalled how she handled a former friend who spoke behind her back: “All Chona could say was, ‘She has a problem. Let her grow up.’”

In turn, she steered clear of gossiping herself. A manager she worked with at Rustan’s, Susan Joven, said that she was a “real person” to everyone she met. “She treated everyone (whether a salesperson or a VIP.) with dignity and respect.”

Cleanse, tone, nourish.

She meant it in all things — skincare, for one, but also body wellness, personality, and spirituality. She promoted self-care, treating yourself — have wine with meals, but “never drink to get drunk” — and being unselfish. What is notable about Recto-Kasten’s beauty was how it was uncontrived, natural, perhaps even organic. It glowed out of her so she could wear the plainest clothes and still turn heads.

She nourished relationships too; she remembered people’s names, sent them gifts, and hosted small get-togethers. “She taught my siblings and me to become interesting simply by being interested, because that’s how she was,” Ysmael-Bilbao wrote. Recto-Kasten cultivated not networks, but friendships.

(Right) A stunning Fernando Amorsolo of La Divina in a chantilly lace wrap by Ramon Valera. Portrait of Chona Recto, oil on canvas, 1953. Photos courtesy of ANVIL PUBLISHING

In its entirety, “La Divina” is not just an ode to a style icon as it is a daughter’s tribute to her mother. The author writes of her fascination with her mother even as a girl, how she tried her best to copy her. Even now, Recto-Kasten poses for imitation still. Many parts of the biography see her daughter not only retelling experiences and lessons from her mother, but processing them — transposing them into a written form, so that it can be shared. Many more unspoken rules on manners and style are noted here, making the book a must-have for fashion enthusiasts.

One would expect an account on the lives of the rich and famous to be alienating, if not terribly boring, but Recto-Kasten’s character prevents it — even in biography, she is a gracious hostess.


“La Divina: The Life and Style of Chona Recto-Kasten” is published by Anvil Publishing, Inc. in partnership with National Bookstore and Philippine Star.