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Miss Universe controversial gowns and national costumes through the years

By PINKY S. ICAMEN Published May 12, 2021 2:23 pm

Controversies are almost always brewing in the world of pomp and pageantry, with even gowns and national costumes of candidates get hitched in a whirlwind of debacle and outrage.

Scandals and controversies—like missing costume pieces, allegations of design plagiarism, and designs taking a political turn—are some of the things that pageant watchers anticipate alongside the glitz and glamour of the spectacle.

As we inch toward the much-awaited 69th Miss Universe pageant, where the Philippines’ bet Rabiya Mateo is set to compete with her all-Filipino made and designed evening gown and national costume, let’s look back at some of the controversial gowns and national costumes that hounded the Miss Universe competition through the years.

Miss Universe Singapore 2018 Zahra Khanum

Miss Universe Singapore Zahra Khanum in her Trump-Kim Summit-inspired national costume.

Singapore’s Zahra Khanum’s national costume for the Miss Universe 2018 pageant made headlines for its design inspired by the historic Trump-Kim Summit held in the city-state the same year. 

The national costume titled “World Peace” features a blue skirt which, when spread out, reveals a digital print that depicts the handshake between then US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with their countries’ flags over the famous Singapore skyline.

Enraged critics almost immediately questioned the design—executed by veteran costumer Moe Kasim together with Miss Universe Singapore national director Nuraliza Osman—and how it represents Singapore. Others called it “ugly” and made fun of the design, Photoshopping iconic Singaporean food over the dress like a durian, a curry puff and even a plate of nasi lemak.

Khanum responded to critics and said the costume, which took three months to make, shows a “bigger picture” of what Singapore stands for. She said in an interview with Channel News Asia that the costume represents what the world needs, “a sense of unity and friendship, rather than hatred and anger.”

Meanwhile, Kasim, who had been designing the national costumes of Miss Universe Singapore winners, said in an interview that he had to consider political sensitivities and how to bring out the massage in a tasteful manner through its design.

The designer, who was the target of criticisms for the literal take of the design, revealed to The Straits Times that the design of the dress was already been decided on even before he was tapped to execute it. 

Miss Israel 1994 Ravit Yarkoni

Miss Israel 1994 Ravit Yarkoni in her controversial terno by renowned Filipino fashion designer Joe Salazar. She is escorted by TV personality Paolo Bediones. Photo from clippings of Mike Herrera

During the Miss Universe 1994, which the Philippines hosted, candidates were shuttled from one event to another to promote the pageant, including a Flores de Mayo parade where Miss Israel Ravit Yarkoni’s terno caused quite a stir.

Yarkoni’s controversial terno featured a see-through hoop skirt that reveals a pair of lacy shorts underneath. Then members of the House of Representatives—Maria Clara Lobregat of Zamboanga City and Milagros Laurel of Batangas—denounced Miss Israels terno as an “insult” to Filipinos and religion as it was worn during a procession in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

According to a Philippine STAR report, renowned Filipino fashion designer Joe Salazar, defended the terno he designed for Yarkoni saying it was not a sacred item but was simply an artistic expression.

Miss Universe Philippines 2014 MJ Lastimosa

Miss Universe Philippines 2014 MJ Lastimosa in her Alfredo Barazza evening gown.

Philippine bet MJ Lastimosa’s evening gown and national costume made by Colombian fashion designer Alfredo Barazza for the Miss Universe 2014 pageant opened up the conversation that the country’s beauty queens should definitely be dressed by Pinoy designers.

Lastimosa, who placed in the Top 10, wore a white mermaid-cut evening gown, which some critics and pageant followers believed ruined her chances in placing higher in the competition. 

Netizens and critics directed much of the blame to to Binibining Pilipinas Charities Inc. chair Stella Marquez Araneta, who reportedly chose her fellow Colombian  Barazza to design Lastimosa’s gown, when the Philippines is in abundance with world-class fashion designers. Some even asked Araneta to step down from her post.

What fueled the controversy even more were leaked photos of Lastimosa during rehearsals wearing a blush gown made by Filipino designer Leo Almodal, which Lastimosa once said is one of the local designers she loves. She said in an interview that she wore Almodal’s gown during the rehearsals as the Barazza gown was still being altered at the time by Pinoy fashion designer Veejay Floresca.

The outrage over Lastimosa’s gown, which became the subject of ridicule on social media, even led to a lawmaker filing a bill that requires all Filipino beauty queens competing in international pageants to wear gowns made or created by local fashion designers.

In succeeding years, Miss Universe Philippines candidates wore Filipino-designed gowns, including the winning royal blue mermaid gown by Albert Andrada for Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, and the fiery red Mayon Volcano-inspired gown by Mak Tumang for Catriona Gray.

Miss Mexico 2007 Rosa Maria Ojeda Cuen

Mexico's Rosa Maria Ojeda Cuen in her gown printed with scenes depicting the 1920s Cistero war. The outfit is adorned with a belt made of bullets.

The Miss Universe 2007 pageant held in Mexico City was marked by protests and controversies.

Adding to the tension was Mexico’s bet Rosa Maria Ojeda Cuen’s outfit for the pre-pageant regional dress contest, which depicted scenes from the 1920s religious uprising, Cristero war, where tens of thousands of people died.

The floor-length dress bears images including of a man facing a firing squad and hangings. It was also adorned with a belt made of bullets. Outrage ensued as Mexicans said the gown was made in poor taste and was inappropriate for a pageant like Miss Universe. 

The designers told La Jornada newspaper that they chose a design that represented Mexico’s culture and history and they wanted a dress that make one think of Mexico, which many Mexicans disagreed and launched protests.

Ojeda and her team were forced to tone down her outfit for the Miss Universe pageant—removing the bullet belt and other accessories of the dress—after backlash and protests ensued.

Miss Universe Jamaica 2019 Iana Tickle Garcia

Miss Universe Jamaica 2019 Iana Tickle Garcia in her national costume titled “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” reportedly an homage to legendary slave owner Annie Palmer.

“A national embarrassment.” That’s how critics and Jamaicans described the national costume of Miss Universe Jamaica 2019 Iana Tickle Garcia.

Titled “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” the bejeweled carnival-style gown paid homage to legendary slave owner Annie Palmer, which some Jamaicans said was tone deaf, insensitive and inappropriate.

There were also questions as to whether Garcia even opposed to the outfit. The Miss Universe Jamaica organization was also questioned why its members decided to dress the country’s representative as a “notorious slave master who killed countless black people, especially black men.”

Adding salt to the wound was the response of the Miss Universe Jamaica organization, which defended their decision for using the said theme for the costume, even though it was peppered with unpleasant history.

A week after Jamaica’s Miss Universe 2019 debacle, the country celebrated its win in the Miss World 2019 pageant. But the horrors that the White Witch of Rose Hall remain.

Do you remember other controversial Miss Universe gowns and national costumes?