How Very Vanda-ful

Miss Universe Singapore’s “3-D printed national costume”—as some reports describe it—is a misnomer. But what fun is a national costume at the Miss Universe final if it’s not poorly named, controversial, and bordering on the absurd?

On stage in New Orleans, Miss Universe Singapore in national costume

We always remind ourselves that when it comes to the national costume segment of Miss Universe—and, frankly, the whole pageant—we have to think of entertainment, of amusement, of laughter. No one takes them costumes seriously, or as inspiration for a dress you might wish to wear for the next Christmas/party season. So when our current Miss Universe Singapore Carissa Yap strutted out—and she did—in what appeared to be a leotard, festooned with veiny petalous shapes, we were not surprised; we were entertained and we were amused, and we laughed. After 2021’s lacklustre, caped national costume, worn by Bernadette Belle Wu Ong (or Mr International Singapore Sean Nicholas Sutiono’s flag-as-cape), we were delighted to see our national flower Papilionanthe Miss Joaquim—a.k.a. Vanda Miss Joaquim—in use, again. Better bunga than, say, nasi lemak. We think the decorative is better than the edible when it comes to adorning a dress, even when there are designers who think it might be more effective to appeal to one’s appetite than aesthetic sense. And this year, it is hybrid orchid and national colour that take centrestage to generate fervid viewer reaction.

As with most of the national costumes that were shown in this 71st year of the pageant, held in New Orleans, Ms Yap’s outfit is hard to describe. It is, for sure, not a gown. The bifurcated, seeming one-piece is an audacious proposition for a beauty-contest stage, where looking glamorous is what every contestant hopes to achieve, and usually with an over-the-top dress. Some call this year’s SG national dress a jumpsuit. We are not sure. It could be a unitard of sort (something a trapeze artist might wear?), even a close-fitting two-piece, or samfu (it’s really hard to make out from the photos). The base garment is designed and made by our island’s couture darling Frederick Lee. Apparently, he even dreamed up the idea of the segments of the corolla of the orchid, conceived to expose the venation of the petals, like those of pressed leaves after they have spent considerable time weighted between the pages of a book. They are arranged in the shape of our island (more nationalistic fervour in the red and white!). Those petal parts are realised and 3-D-printed by Baëlf Design, the studio specialising in clothes not made of conventional cloth.

Publicity photo: Close up of the “lattice”

It is debatable if what was worn by Ms Yap, a National University of Singapore student, can be accurately described as a 3-D printed garment. According to the posts on Mr Lee’s and Miss Universe Singapore’s social media pages, the outfit is a result of “combining intricate craft, precise design computation and innovative use of 3D-printing technologies.” So, it is not entirely 3-D printed. The posts went on: “By using computation to grow organic, vein-like structures, these petals form a high-rise collar around the neck, as well as outstretched wings, enveloping the body in a lightweight, white-coloured 3D-printed lattice.” That, of course, makes the costume grander than it actually is. Perhaps, as long as it sounds good, it would look smashing. Growing a winged, biological form that is structural yet covers the body completely is, naturally, a feat. It does not matter that it is arguable that the irregular lines of the petals’ veins and the spaces between indeed make up latticework. The composition appeared, to us, an embellished, closing-fitting suit attached with extraneous decoration, but whether the petals—“200 individual pieces”—are stitched on or affixed with a glue gun, it is not known.

Three-dimensional printing is, of course, better poised to position our island as the hub of technological advancements than traditional dressmaking can. Although Frederick Lee has successfully marketed himself as a couturier, he does need to appear to be moving with the times, to stay relevant, and to be able to incorporate additive manufacturing to his work, rather than using a far more commonplace method, such as stitching cloth, alone. While the alate attachments (the illustration by Mr Lee shows them to be more wing-like or “outstretched”) may be enchanting, the idea of the orchid, for many of the pageant’s SG followers, is not quite. No, it isn’t because the sum effect is a tad too Iris van Herpen. When it comes to the costumes (or gag-garments?) of Miss Universe Singapore, we have a tendency to fall back on the good ’ol standby, the orchid, for inspiration. It is hard to say if this is really lack of imagination or simple laziness. Or, that our young nation is bereft of cultural motifs and material uniqueness for our costume designers to create awe-inspiring creative forms. Singapore is the only country in the world with a national flower that’s a hybrid bloom. Introducing Carissa Yap (and her costume), the co-host told the audience that “she would never settle for just one petal (there was not much more she could have settled for).” If only the commentator knew that the Vanda Miss Joaquim, when accurately depicted, has only two.

Erratum: A previous version of this post mis-stated that Bernadette Belle Wu Ong is Miss Universe Singapore in 2022; she, in fact, represented Singapore in 2021

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