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Eleganza! The top 16 most iconic Miss Universe evening gowns of all time

By Paul Rubio Published Dec 06, 2021 4:31 pm Updated Jan 10, 2023 4:12 pm

A beautiful, statuesque woman gracefully gliding across a stage in an elegant evening gown: this is the image that many, if not all of us, conjure in our heads when we think of Miss Universe.

Ever since the evening gown competition was introduced to the pageant in 1960 (candidates competed in just their swimsuits in the first eight years), pageant fans have perennially waited with bated breath for the segment, and the right or wrong evening gown could make or break a candidate’s chance at the crown. Over the years, we have seen every style of dress, and the fashions these Miss Universe hopefuls showcase often mirror what is considered vogue at the time.

We revisited the archive for you and handpicked our list of the most iconic evening gowns to ever appear on the Miss Universe stage. The 16 we have chosen here are not necessarily the most beautiful of all time (that’s going to be a far longer list; these gowns are almost always beautiful), but these are the gowns that have stood the test of time and still feature in conversations about pageantry even today.

16. Harnaaz Sandhu (India)

Miss Universe 2021

Reigning Miss Universe Harnaaz Sandhu slayed the evening gown competition with her stunning see-through shimmery gown by trans designer Saisha Shinde. The silver gown featured beaded embellishments, stones, and sequins along the plunging neckline. Harnaaz also paid homage to her Punjabi roots with the dress as it donned phulkari patterns. 

15. Paweensuda Drouin (Thailand)

Miss Universe 2019 Top 5

The 2019 edition of the grand pageant birthed a number of gorgeous evening gowns—including Philippines’ Gazini Ganados’s golden serpentine dress—and another beauty queen stood out from the pack: Thailand’s Paweensuda Druoin. While she only finished in the top 5 of the competition, Paweensuda received huge cheers as she came out in her flowy nude and red number, which she said embodied her playful personality.

14. Iris Mittenaere (France)

Miss Universe 2016

While most evening gowns that grace the Miss Universe stage feature strapless silhouettes, France’s Iris Mittenaere opted for a long-sleeved sparkling gold number. The gown was lined with intricate geometric details and a sheer base to show off the beauty queen’s glowing skin. Despite the sleeves, it accentuated Iris’ amazing figure.

13. Leila Lopes (Angola)

Miss Universe 2011

Before bagging the crown for the night, Miss Angola Leila Lopes came out in a beautiful cream and silver strapless gown with beautiful rhinestones and blue beads attached to the bodice. Along the skirt were even finer details like feathers lining the slit, adding more feminine charm to the ensemble.

Dayana Mendoza (Venezuela)
Miss Universe 2008

At first glance, one could be forgiven if they felt that there was nothing special about Dayana Mendoza’s finals gown apart from the color. But when you take in all the details—the intricate pattern of the beading on the bodice, the flirty slit, the way the skirt moves around her as she twirls—you will realize the extreme level of craftsmanship Venezuelan designer Gionni Straccia employed in the creation of this look. Plus, yes, that color. The vibrant canary yellow of the dress looked amazing against her tan skin and perfectly captured the essence of her bubbly, sunny personality.

11. Pia Wurtzbach (Philippines)
Miss Universe 2015

Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, Miss Universe Philippines 2015, on stage as a Top 3 Finalist during the Final Look for The 2015 MISS UNIVERSE Telecast  (Darren Decker/Miss Universe Organization)

Like the first gown on our list, this one also appears simple and straightforward… until it isn’t. This royal blue silk mermaid gown registers remarkably well on stage, and the exquisite detailing at the back was made all the more thrilling by the way Pia Wurtzbach executed her centerstage turn. This Albert Andrada design is notable for being the first Miss Universe Philippines gown made by a Filipino designer (our contestants previously sported gowns made by Colombian designer Alfredo Barraza—he will also figure in the list later). The success of this gown paved the way for the beautiful Filipino creations seen in our candidates in the years that followed.

10. Ariadna Gutierrez (Colombia)
Miss Universe 2015 First Runner-Up

Ariadna Gutierrez, Miss Universe Colombia 2015, on stage as a Top 3 Finalist during the Final Look for The 2015 MISS UNIVERSE Telecast. (Darren Decker/Miss Universe Organization)

This is the first non-winner on our list (well, she was a winner for a brief moment, but we all know how that went down), but it would be a shame to not include this. From the moment Ariadna Gutierrez walked out in this glittering metallic number, her place as a frontrunner was all but cemented. The clean, unfettered silhouette makes her look ten feet tall and the strategic cut-outs in the bodice emphasized her curves perfectly. This piece was designed by the aforementioned Alfredo Barraza, and every element of this gown is a testament to his complete mastery of dressing Colombian beauties.

9. Diana Harkusha (Ukraine)
Miss Universe 2014 Second Runner-Up

Diana Harkusha, Miss Universe Ukraine 2014, is announced as one of the top five finalists during The 63rd Annual MISS UNIVERSE Pageant. (Patrick Prather/Miss Universe Organization)

Haute couture gowns don’t often make an appearance on the Miss Universe stage, and when they do—like this strawberry red Zuhair Murad worn by Ukraine’s Diana Harkusha, the eventual second runner-up—they make a big splash. This stunning gown was snatched fresh from Murad’s fall 2014 collection, and it fit Diana perfectly. The trimmed bodice and expertly draped skirt displayed her amazing figure, and the fully sequined patterns running all over the dress caught the stage lights and made her look every inch like the star that she is.

8. Georgina Rizk (Lebanon)
Miss Universe 1971

Our next outfit takes us all the way back to 1971, when Lebanon’s Georgina Rizk wowed the crowds and the judges in the evening gown competition by wearing… pants. A ballsy move in any era, her dreamy two-piece ensemble of bejeweled turquoise crop top and gauzy palazzo pants proudly showcased Middle Eastern finery on the Miss Universe stage. She went on to win the crown that night, and the notoriety of her unconventional look led to a successful international modeling career.

7. Taliana Vargas (Colombia)
Miss Universe 2008 First Runner-Up

People either loved this dress or fiercely hated it and it’s not difficult to see why. The fabric was odd (it was a sort of mottled gold-and-white?) and the silhouette was complicated. But this unconventional pseudo-Grecian gown designed by Colombian designer Beatriz Camacho is firmly on our list because it fulfilled the brief brilliantly—it allowed Taliana Vargas to perform her way to a second-place finish in 2008. The billowing folds of the garment seemingly came alive as she glid across the stage, and when she twirled, the gown danced with her. Say what you will about it, but this dress helped Taliana garner one of the highest scores in evening gown in Miss Universe history.

6. Marta Magdalena Stępień (Canada)
Miss Universe 2018 Top 10

Marta Magdalena Stepien, Miss Universe Canada 2018 competes on stage in an evening gown of her choice as a Top 10 finalist during The MISS UNIVERSE Competition. (Amorn Pitayanant/Miss Universe Organization)

Canada’s Marta Magdalena Stępień may have failed to crack the top 5 in 2018 but the moment she walked out on that runway in the preliminary competition is still fresh in pageant fans’ minds up til now. She was a picture of sheer elegance in her fully crystallized nude column gown with delicate gold beadwork; and her oversized ruffled tulle train brought the drama in a major way. This couture piece was created by Dubai-based Filipino designer Michael Cinco, and in 2018, was one of the several testaments to Filipino artistry being showcased in the Miss Universe stage (more on that later on).

5. Zozibini Tunzi (South Africa)
Miss Universe 2019

Zozibini Tunzi, Miss Universe South Africa 2019 competes on stage in an evening gown of her choice as a Top 10 finalist during The MISS UNIVERSE® Competition. (Alex Mertz/Miss Universe Organization) 

The 2019 edition of Miss Universe had pretty solid gowns all around, but none of the rest of the top 10’s gowns had the impact that eventual winner Zozibini Tunzi’s had. She stunned everyone when she walked out in her shimmering ombré turquoise-and-gold fully beaded gown custom made for her by South African couture house Biji La Maison. The design was inspired by the South African coast, with the colors representing the meeting of the ocean and the shore. It was refreshingly original and distinctively African; and perfectly captured Zozi’s vibrant spirit.

4. Riyo Mori (Japan)
Miss Universe 2007

The Miss Universe in the 2000s was all about shine and sparkle (well, if we’re being honest about it, it’s always about shine and sparkle, then and now) so when Japan’s Riyo Mori came out in a dress that did not feature a single sequin or rhinestone, it was an unexpected and refreshing delight. The couture dress—from Frida Giannini’s 2007 Spring-Summer collection for Gucci—was reminiscent of a kimono, with its purple and orange stripes along the cuffs and bodice, and a playful patchwork of paisley panels worked into the billowy skirt. Oprah Winfrey also notably wore this dress back in the day, and if it’s good enough for Oprah, it’s more than good enough for us. Fourteen years on and this is still one of the chicest gowns on the Miss Universe stage, very apt for a queen who proved to be one of the most delightfully fashion-forward among the recent winners (fun fact: she forewent the usual gown for her final walk the next year, opting instead for a kickass pantsuit.)

3. Zuleyka Rivera (Puerto Rico)
Miss Universe 2006

The sheer nearly-see-through gown worn by Puerto Rico’s Zuleyka Rivera in 2006 was probably the most daring look in the pageant; and it is certainly the most rock and roll Miss Universe gown of all time. Made almost entirely of fine metallic chains, the gown perfectly accentuated the raw sensuality that Zuleyka has in spades. It was edgy, original, and she looked damn good in it. It was created by Florida-based designer Carlos Alberto and reportedly weighed a whopping 14 kilos, which is a small miracle in itself, for she wore it as if it was as light as a feather.

2. Oxana Fedorova (Russia)
Miss Universe 2002

Getting the Miss Universe 2002 crown proved to be a cakewalk for heavy fan-favorite Oxana Fedorova from Russia (but keeping it was an altogether different matter—she would get dethroned 119 days later, but that’s a story for another day), so when she came out looking like a literal angel during the evening gown competition in this subdued, minimalistic white dress from Tom Ford’s 2002 Spring-Summer collection for Gucci, it was just icing on a very, very good cake.

It broke the rules in the subtlest of ways: it’s not form-fitting and it has no visible embellishments save for a daintily tied ribbon across the bustle. But Oxana managed to make it pop with her regal bearing and her best accessory—that insanely beautiful face. This dress goes down in history as the definitive Miss Universe look of the 2000s. Not bad for a three-month-long queen.

1, Catriona Gray (Philippines)
Miss Universe 2018

Catriona Gray, Miss Universe Philippines 2018 on stage during the Top 3 Final Look segment of The MISS UNIVERSE® Competition. Ralph Smith/Miss Universe Organization

It was, as they say, a cultural reset. Catriona Gray was the candidate to beat the moment she was crowned Miss Universe Philippines, and all eyes were on her the moment she landed in Bangkok to compete at Miss Universe 2018. With her knockout smile, infectious charm, and thoughtfully curated styling that showcased the best of Filipino fashion, she easily lived up to all the hype the entire competition through, but never more so than when she walked into the evening gown competition runway in this crimson showstopper custom made for her by her longtime collaborator, designer Mak Tumang.

Dubbed the "Mayon" gown, this instant classic was designed to resemble the swirling red and orange lava that flows down the volcano’s cone-shaped crater. This was achieved by fully encrusting tulle with 12 tones of Swarovski crystals that ranged from yellow to dark red. It was pure magic as she walked down the runway: the way the stage lights hit the crystals gave them an otherworldly glow. The dress hugged her body perfectly, and the high slit accentuated her long legs.

It was the perfect climax to Catriona’s perfect Miss Universe campaign. If Oxana Fedorova’s white Gucci is the quintessential Miss Universe gown of the 2000s, then Catriona Gray’s fiery red Mak Tumang is the quintessential Miss Universe gown of the 2010s, and even perhaps, of all time.

With reports from Ayie Licsi