We are so starved of gowns for local beauty queens that this year, our Miss Universe had to outsource the creation of the national costume to pageant country, the Philippines
Miss Universe Singapore Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really flew Singapore’s flag high six hours ago, in Donald Trump’s post-presidency hometown Florida. The beauty contest is staged in Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, some 80 kilometres south of Mr Trump’s home and members-only resort Mar-a-Lago Club. Exactly two weeks back, when Ms Ong posted a video on Instagram, showing her proudly catwalking in Changi Airport—before departing for the US—with an SG flag floating above her head, no one had thought that she would actually wrap herself in a semblance of one on the pageant stage. Even when not clued in, no one could mistake where the inspiration for the floor-sweeping cape came from. According to the voice-over when Ms Ong was strutting her stuff during the National Costume segment, “the red represents equality for all (they were careful to omit the official description of red standing for the now-not-quite-woke ‘universal brotherhood and equality of man’) and the white symbolises everlasting virtue (skipping the unattainable ‘purity’).”
The bi-coloured piece, however, didn’t quite catch the fans’ and the pageant world’s attention as much as what was paint-written on it: “Stop Asian Hate”. This graffiti-like-text-meets-floating-rear-wrap-as-national-dress did not only express national identity, but more so the woke thoughts and convictions of the wearer. That an Asian participating in a beauty contest featuring women from different lands needed to use the platform to call attention to the ending of hostilities towards other Asians showed how political voice increasingly makes the costumes louder. As Ms Ong posted on Instagram, “What is this platform for if I can’t use it to send a strong message of resistance against prejudice and violence?” She also told Yahoo News, the pageant now “focuses more on advocacy, you as an individual, and how strong you are as a candidate through your past stories and heuristics (that should be the next ‘umbrage’!)” Or, was she just adulting?
Advocacy on our tiny island is, as we know, not really the stuff that move people, let alone mountains. No beauty queen that we can remember ever upgraded a pet cause into a cause célèbre. It is possible that because no one was willing to be co-participant in Ms Ong’s sloganeering, she had to take it to the Philippines. According to Ms Ong’s IG post, the dress was designed by her and executed by the still-in-school Filipino designer Arwin Meriales, with the oversized text painted by the cat-loving artist Paulo Espinosa. As Ms Ong wrote on IG this morning, “I reached out to Filipino designer Arwin Meriales to create a design of my own and he executed!” The reaction to that was unsurprising: how was it that the Singaporean organisers didn’t see this as potential affront to Singaporean design and attendant community? One stylist didn’t hold back when he told us, “designers here have all died.”
That Ms Ong would choose a designer from the Philippines to execute her costume is not at all surprising. She was born there. At age ten, she and her ethnic Chinese parents emigrated to our island-state. Ms Ong reportedly speaks fluent Tagalog, and still feels connected to her place of birth. To prep for Miss Universe, she went to Manila to be trained (yes, they are well-known for their “beauty boot camps”), which could explain her OTT catwalk style. Spotlighting the American-initiated plea #stopasianhate seemed to have wowed many viewers and her IG followers, bland as her actual message was. How magnificent—how maganda—seemed to be the common cheer. But whether Ms Ong as sartorial flag bearer was in itself a triumph, no one we spoke to was willing to say. Fashion folks preferred to keep mum as any criticism would be seen as directed at “not one, but two nations”, a designer told us.
We always remind ourselves that we can’t see Miss Universe gowns through the eyes of fashion. These are creations for a universe, a good way from ours. The costumes—rightly termed—are just that, but for those nations without their own traditional dress, it was often a challenge to dream one up. We have always had laughable results trying to push a Singapore dress out, and worse when we think rojak makes good baju. But even by our own grim standards for this entertaining segment of Miss Universe, the latest, oddly-sleeved outerwear is, at best, for memes. Hard it was for us to ignore how clumsily constructed the puffed sleeves were. They looked deflated, and with the gathered armhole (that appeared to be achieved with elastic bands), seemed exempt from the extra step of toile prototyping. Or how the painted text could be seen on the underside of the floaty panels—lining would have diminished the unsightliness. Ms Ong revealed on IG that the cape took two days to complete. It showed.
Arwin Meriales describes himself on his website as a “fast rising designer”, which says to us he is a relative newbie. The 21-year-old from Quezon City agreed to making the outfit for Ms Ong (it isn’t known if they are friends) despite the tight dateline (and studies in design school) because, as he posted on Facebook, it was more than a national costume that he was going to make, he would also be putting out a “STATEMENT” and “PROTEST” (yes, in caps) to halt the hatred of Asians. “Who wouldn’t want,” he asked, “to be a part of such cause?” It can be assumed that Ms Ong, who studied accounting, is an accidental designer (it isn’t known why she had to source her own pageant outfits) and Mr Meriales provided the technical support. It is easy to pin the flaccid results to the lack of time, but a maestro would be able to know what can or cannot be performed. Fellow Southeast Asian, Miss Philippines Rabiya Mateo wore a striking gown by a compatriot designer, the late Rocky Gathercole (who died in March before the outfit could be completed). The gown had near-vertical, (also) bi-coloured wings. Whatever needed to stand, stood, and stood out. If Bernadette Belle Wu Ong really required a cape to do her thing in Florida, she might have been better advised to approach Frederick Lee. No stranger to pageants, Mr Lee could have designed for her a dramatic cape, as he had produced in the past, and made it truly distend—and soar. And, as typical of the NatCos competition, camp enough.