Miss Universe 2021 is just around the bend and with it comes the much-anticipated National Costume Show.
Year in and year out, pageant fans eagerly await this dazzling spectacle wherein the candidates get to show off their countries via costumes that represent their culture and heritage. These can range from understated traditional garments that evoke their rich history to increasingly over-the-top depictions of their local flora, fauna, and frankly, anything and everything in between.
While it (reportedly) doesn’t count towards their overall performance scores, the national costume competition is an integral part of the Miss Universe experience. Many of the candidates go all out for it: in a pageant as streamlined as Miss Universe, it is often the only time they can truly stand out on their own terms and fully exhibit their individuality on stage. And boy, do they exhibit. The National Costume Show has seen some of the wildest, most out-of-this-world garments ever: from crazy headdresses to insane feats of structural engineering strapped into a drop-dead gorgeous woman’s back or sitting on top of her head; it is this exact camp energy that has made it such a highlight for the fans each year.
As we gear up for Miss Universe, let us whet your appetites with 10 of the most scene-stealing national costume looks from the last 10 years. Warning: there will be feathers. And sparkles. And fabulousness. Here they are:
Miss Universe Canada 2014
First: props to her for not showing up in a Canadian mountie outfit or some sort of spin on the maple leaf. And then second: a resounding standing ovation for the sheer wackiness of this whole look.
Yes, she is wearing a mullet-ish frame skirt and lace-up leather high-heeled boots that meant to resemble ice skates. Yes, she has hockey sticks shooting out of her shoulder blades. And YES, that is an approximation of the Stanley Cup sitting atop her head. If this doesn’t drive home the point that Canada is hockey country, then nothing will. And no, I did not forget: that is a working scoreboard and yes, it is attached to her. Canada: 1, everyone else: 0. Sorry aboot it.
Ji Dan Xu
Miss Universe China 2012
If all fashion is art, then Miss Universe China’s 2012 national costume is the finest of fine art. This now-iconic white and blue silk dress was inspired by Ming Dynasty porcelain vases, and it looks exactly as exquisite as that suggests. It has a pedigree, too. It was designed by legendary Chinese couturier Guo Pei, who would go on to achieve universal acclaim when her one-of-a-kind creations (including this one) were displayed in New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art Costume Institute in 2015. The impact of this dress resonates far and wide; a variation on its design was notably worn by American drag queen Trinity The Tuck as her finale look on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4, and we suspect that like all classics, its influence will still live on for a very long time.
Miss Universe Great Britain 2013
Sometimes they’re works of art, and sometimes they’re… something else. Like this delightfully alarming mishmash of Elizabethan and sexpot that Miss Universe Great Britain wore in 2013. She looked every bit the fashion time traveler in this equal parts regnant and pantomime crushed velvet ensemble with an oversized ruff and flirty hemline. Zoom in to certain parts of it and you’ll get elegant and supreme. It presented an easily identifiable quintessential symbol of Britain and then turned it on its head with cheekily irreverent British camp and we love every inch of it.
Miss Universe Japan 2017
Momoko Abe brought the house down in 2017 when she walked in wearing a chic all-black Ninja armor-inspired dress which then, with the pull of a string, transformed into a vibrantly patterned kimono. It was so flawlessly executed; her Samurai sheath even became a Japanese paper fan! What can I say, we just love a good reveal.
Miss Universe Laos 2018
For just their second time participating at Miss Universe, Laos really hit it out of the park national costume-wise. This shimmering gold garment was inspired by the kinnaree, half-bird and half-woman creatures that feature heavily in the Buddhist lore predominant in the country, and the two human-sized figures attached front and back were mesmerizing to watch as she flitted around on stage.
Miss Universe Myanmar 2016
This costume depicts a traditional Burmese marionette play, with Miss Myanmar playing a puppet princess on strings. Puppet theatre, called yoke thé in Burmese, is integral to their culture, and it was deftly showcased in Htet-Htet Htun’s captivating performance. Additionally, the little puppet dance she did after she parted the curtains of the faux stage she brought with her on stage received generous cheers and applause from the audience, proving once and for all that everybody does, in fact, love puppets.
Miss Universe Philippines 2019
We have had a spotty record in the national costume competition for years, with the rich tapestry of culture we have to draw from frustratingly left untapped. That is until Gazini Ganados wowed in this sleek and intricate homage to the Philippine Eagle. This silver showstopper created by designer Cary Santiago may not have gotten its due moment when it won Best in National Costume in the final (Because Steve Harvey flubbed the announcement AGAIN), but it will for sure live on forever as one of the most stunning Filipino creations to ever take the Miss Universe stage.
Miss Universe Puerto Rico 2019
Is it even a Miss Universe National Costume Show if it doesn’t feature one (or five, or eight) depictions of flowers? 2019’s most captivating floral was Puerto Rico’s Madison Anderson in a skirt that lifts up to be a majestic depiction of the Puerto Rican hibiscus flor de maga in bloom, and with the golden coqui, a frog endemic to Puerto Rico displayed on the bodice. But what took this to legendary status were the Bluetooth speakers sewn into the garment’s lining, which when activated blared out Puerto Rican jungle sounds. This vibrant and playful ensemble was created for Madison by internationally sought-after Puerto Rican costume designer Joshuan Aponte, whose designs have appeared on the RuPaul’s Drag Race runway and worn by celebrities like Adriana Lima, Jameela Jamil, and Patrick Starrr.
Miss Universe Thailand 2015
Thailand’s Aniporn Chalermburanawong made quite a splash in 2015 when she donned a delightfully bonkers tuk-tuk inspired national costume, complete with handlebars and functional headlights. The tuk-tuk, which is as ubiquitous in Bangkok streets as the traysikel is in Manila, first seemed like an odd choice to represent Thai culture, but it actually proved to be a stroke of genius. Its vibrant colors provided a canvas for a fun and playful presentation that you cannot really do in say, a traditional chut thai. Plus, everyone talked about it, zooming past the competition and taking home the Best in National Costume award. Jeepney-inspired national costume for the Philippines, when?
Miss Universe Vietnam 2018
Speaking of delightfully bonkers, this deliciously campy costume worn by Miss Universe Vietnam turned heads (and made some mouths water, probably) in 2018. It depicts one of Vietnam’s most popular delicacies, the banh mi sandwich. It’s playful, it’s fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which was an amazing juxtaposition to the laser-focused performance she turned out for the rest of the competition (she finished in the top 5). Here’s to hoping for more food-themed costumes from Vietnam (perhaps a steaming bowl of pho?) and other countries as well (I would kill for a halo-halo gown, just saying).
BONUS: Thuzar Wint Lwin
Miss Universe Myanmar 2020
Her costume was nowhere near as elaborate or flashy as any one of the others on this list, but the story behind it deserves a mention. She walked onstage in a relatively subdued traditional Burmese beaded dress. The crowd erupted when on centerstage she unfurled and held up a sign imploring people to “PRAY FOR MYANMAR”. It was a poignant moment of protest against the Burmese military, who, earlier this year, seized control of the government in a bloody coup that has claimed the lives of countless citizens.
Her brave choice to speak out on this matter in the Miss Universe stage has cost her the opportunity to come back home after the competition: fearing for what the military government might do to her when she gets back, she has sought and was granted asylum in the US shortly thereafter.
To add another layer of heart to the whole thing: the costume she had on wasn’t even the costume she had prepared. Her original national costume, along with other key wardrobe pieces, was lost in transit from Myanmar to Florida, and the Burmese community in the US rallied to provide for her this costume as well as an evening gown for her to wear in the finals. It may not have been the most extravagant costume on that stage that night, but the spirit of humanity it contained earned it the Best in National Costume Award.