On Monday, 17 December 2018, the most beautiful woman in the Universe will be crowned. Well, the most beautiful woman on Earth, since there has yet to be a non-Earth contestant. But if aliens did (or do?) tune in, what would they think about the ritual of the beauty pageant? What does trying to choose the “most beautiful woman in the world”, a highly charged and problematic endeavour, say about us?
While some might dismiss beauty pageants as frivolous, scholars have studied beauty pageants and how race, idealised femininity and culture intersect on the pageant stage. The early Miss America pageants, the precursor of today’s contemporary pageants, stipulated that contestants had to be “of the white race” until 1940. Today’s pageants, though, have thankfully come a long way from their racist past; the Miss Universe crown has gone to women outside of the Western hemisphere—while also throwing up new segments for followers to obsess over.
The national costume segment
The international dimension of the Miss Universe pageant has resulted in one of the most fascinating aspects of the competition: the national costume segment. If the choice of Miss Universe reveals what we think about beauty, then the national costumes are a unique manifestation of nationalism.
Long Nguyen, talent and production manager for the Miss Universe Vietnam team, tells New Naratif there are no requirements from the Miss Universe competition for this segment. Countries are free to interpret “national costume” as they wish.
In the past, contestants have worn traditional outfits associated with their country. In the 1960s, some countries dabbled in costumes inspired by national iconography rather than traditional outfits, such as Miss England 1962’s sexy Beefeater uniform. In more recent years, the national costumes have evolved into architectural marvels—sometimes literally, as in the case of Miss Universe Malaysia 2016’s Petronas Twin Towers jumpsuit.
The prospect of coming up with a costume that represents a country is complicated enough, but in a region as diverse as Southeast Asia, designing a costume that’s truly representative is nigh impossible.
In 2018, Miss Universe Vietnam team had a new factor to consider when choosing their national costume. This year’s contestant, H’Hen Niê, is from the Ê Đê ethnic minority, and the first contestant from an ethnic minority to be crowned Miss Vietnam.
In a now-deleted video, H’Hen Niê, who is distinctive with her tall stature and stylish cropped hair, put on a wig and glasses and interviewed people on the street about their current Miss Vietnam. For the most part, people were oblivious and candid with their thoughts about their new beauty queen. One woman said that Miss Vietnam looked like a foreigner, while several people said that they didn’t think only pale women looked beautiful—a reference to H’Hen Niê’s darker complexion that reveals how her win pushes against the country’s beauty norms.
While some may not have seen H’Hen Niê as a “typical” Vietnamese beauty, she wore a costume inspired by the banh mi sandwich, one of the country’s most popular foods. This, Nguyen says, added to its appeal as a costume choice: “This food is very familiar to Vietnamese people, no matter our income status.”
The Vietnam team had considered incorporating H’Hen Niê’s culture into the costume but decided to choose a design that was more representative of the country as a whole. “In our opinion, it has not only been Hen’s [nor the Ê Đê community’s] personal story particularly, but this has also become [a] Vietnamese story, being the combination of 54 different ethnic groups as well as our colourful culture,” says Nguyen. But H’Hen Niê’s culture has been a part of her campaign; the promotional videos for her journey to the competition feature her in Ê Đê traditional dress.
Malaysia, too, is a heterogeneous country. Officially, one is more likely to hear about the Malay, Indian and Chinese communities, while smaller communities like Sikhs, Eurasians, and various indigenous peoples are lumped together in the “Other” category.
In the last 10 years, Malaysia’s national costume has most often drawn inspiration from Malay culture, either featuring couture reimaginings of Malay traditional dress such as 2012’s kebaya costume, or historical figures like the queen Che Siti Wan Kembang and the Princess of Perak, with one reference to East Malaysian indigenous culture with 2014’s “The Goddess of Kenyalang” gown. Ironically, a 1996 fatwa prohibits Malay Muslim women from competing in beauty pageants; those who defy the ban can be prosecuted under syariah law.
However, the 2016 Petronas Twin Towers jumpsuit designed by Risman Ruzaini marked a departure in costume choice. “Since 2016, our national costume has broken away from the ‘typical’ traditional costume and has been redefined,” says Kara Kwok, project manager at the Miss Universe Malaysia Organisation.
Last year’s national costume was a gown by Brian Khoo that incorporated nasi lemak—at its most basic iteration a dish of coconut rice, egg, fried anchovies, cucumbers and sambal—which is often touted as the country’s unofficial national dish. Considering how food-obsessed Malaysians are, this might be Malaysia’s most representative costume yet.
This year’s costume returns to an aspect of Malay culture with Salleh Hamid’s “Bangau Perahu” that draws from the intricate carvings on traditional fishing boats of Malay communities on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Salleh Hamid’s costume, which has been likened to a superhero costume, fits with the competition’s evolution. “For the past few years, I feel the performances are increasingly modern and want to be high fashion. More futuristic technologically but still retaining its legacy,” Salleh Hamid says.
Malaysia and Vietnam’s costume choices illustrate the difficulty in creating a cohesive imagining of a plural society, what more in costume form. Considering the Philippines is an archipelago, it’d be a tall order to incorporate every aspect of the country’s culture, and the Miss Universe Phillippines team likely faced similar challenges; though this year’s costume certainly attempted to be as inclusive as possible with the three main island groups represented in different components.
Miss Universe Philippines Catriona Gray’s costume also became an unlikely space to spotlight pre-colonial culture, her costume featured a bodysuit printed with designs from 16th century Visayan warriors. The costume also included a parol or Christmas lantern from the Pampanga province, and her headpiece represented South Cotabato, a province in Mindanao.
The costume was shipped back to the Philippines’’ National Historical Commission after the 10 December national costume competition, in time for the Philippine Quincentennial Commemorations.
The National Quincentennial Committee tweeted, “Catriona Gray captured the thousands of years history and heritage of the Filipino people—an embodiment of time that our history did not just start in 1521 [the date the Spanish colonised the Philippines].”
While these costumes are interpretations of a country’s symbols and culture, the most overt expression of nationalism comes from Singapore with a dress that commemorates the historic North Korea-United States summit held in Singapore earlier this year. The costume, features a digital print of a handshake, one arm clad in a North Korean flag sleeve and the other in an American flag sleeve, over the iconic Singaporean tourist landmarks: Changi Airport, the Marina Bay Sands, Supertrees in Gardens by the Bay, the Merlion. The bodice is a peace sign, and Miss Universe Singapore, Zahra Khanum, sports the white wings of a dove. There’s no missing the message: Singapore, the shiny, metropolitan bringer of peace.
The widely panned costume has since turned into a meme of its own, with Singaporeans starting “Photoshop battles”. The designer, Moe Kasim, told the local media he went for the most literal interpretation of the idea as he didn’t want to risk any misinterpretation. He also hadn’t been the one who decided to focus the costume on the high-profile summit (and media circus) between US President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un that took place in Singapore earlier this year—the pageant organisers had made that decision before they approached him.
While the costume has been widely mocked, Miss Universe Singapore’s dress is the one costume that makes clear what lies at the heart of every national costume segment of every international pageant: a massive public relations exercise for the nation-state on display.
[CORRECTION] The article had originally misidentified Mindanao as a province in the Philippines. We’ve made a correction: the headpiece of the Filipino national costume was from the province of South Cotabato in Mindanao. Our thanks goes to our reader who tweeted us the correction!
Deborah Germaine Augustin is a Malaysian writer and researcher. Previously, she worked as a Parliamentary Assistant for the MP of Kelana Jaya. She is currently working on a cross-genre chapbook about immigration in the United States. She is New Naratif's Member Engagement Coordinator. Reach her at email@example.com.