Romanticizing colonialism? 'Vessel of Faith' designer tells what the costume is about

Published July 24, 2021, 10:27 AM

by John Legaspi

Fashion designer Axel Que explains the story behind her creation for Miss World Philippines 2021 contestant Tracy Maureen Perez

Tracy Maureen Perez wearing the “Vessel of Faith”

In the past years, the landscape of pageantry has changed tremendously from being an entertainment show to being a platform for heritage and change. As a country filled with huge beauty content fans, the Philippines surely knows how to up the ante when it comes to its local pageants, especially in the style department.

Evening gowns imbued with traditional elements sashayed on every national pageant stage. The most festive of all is the parade of national costumes with elaborate garbs presenting Filipino craftsmanship and the cultural identity of the places they represent. Local designers continue to push the boundaries of Filipino costuming, from reimagining the terno to spotlighting age-old indigenous dressing customs, making pieces that are couture-like when it comes to concept and construction.

But with beauty pageants being a public affair and with today’s social mindset, these over the top costumes don’t always land straight to the top list among online critics. The latest piece on fashion and culture limbo is the “Vessel of Faith” costume donned by Miss World Philippines 2021 contestant Tracy Maureen Perez. Shown last July 22, 2021 at the pageant’s gala in Okada Manila, the costume pays tribute to the 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines. It presents the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan to the shores of Cebu and highlights our ancestors’ introduction to the Christian religion.

According to its designer, Axel Que, it took her 15 days to finish the look, from gathering all the materials to the actual execution. It involved a fusion of materials such as laces, satin, appliques, and stones, merged into a hybrid component. The golden vessel headpiece was designed by Louie Gallego.

Although it is praised for its high fashion design, the costume divided many on how it represented the Filipino people. Drag artist DeeDee Marie Holiday expressed her confliction with the look through a Facebook post saying, “Glamorize our colonizers but make it drag.” That blond wig doesn’t help either as another comment says, “To dress up like or depict our colonizers is an insult to our freedom fighters and to the indigenous people.”

Others came to defend the beauty contestant and her garb that being from Cebu, “they celebrate Magellan (or his voyage) for bringing to them the Santo Niño de Cebu, which is the most important icon of Sinulog.” Another Facebook user praised it for its artistry that “it makes you think and it has cultural and historical reference.”

To set the record straight about the “Vessel of Faith” costume, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle chats with its designer Axel regarding the story behind the piece and what she thinks of the netizens’ response to the creation.

Can you tell us more about the inspiration for “Vessel of Faith”? Was it your vision or Tracy’s?

It was a mutual decision. Our interpretation was more abstract (and not to be taken literally). Christianity is quite a dominant religion in Cebu, and the history behind its introduction has helped shape Cebu’s culture. Since 2021 marks the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines, we wanted to commemorate the traditions and customs we grew up with. This concept is highly personal, and admittedly polarizing at the same time. Some get it, others don’t.

Many are divided online regarding the costume. Some praised it for its high fashion aesthetic but others aren’t on the same boat saying it romanticizes colonialism. What do you think about their reaction?

Personally, our costume is just a representation of a journey of the Christian faith. It does have colonial influences for sure, much like our churches, but by no means are we trying to romanticize it. Again, it’s just a profession of our faith manifested in an amalgamation of different aesthetic influences as a designer.

What makes the costume a true representation of the Filipinos?

We cannot speak for the whole nation, but as a Cebuano, Christianity has played a central role in shaping our traditions (e.g. Sinulog, local fiestas). We just wanted to celebrate the Quincentennial commemoration by doing something theatrical. It is kind of like a collage of history, where we are able to recall and share the story of how Christianity arrived to our shores.

Photographs by: Jon Unson

Styling by: Edward James Castro

Makeup by: Nicko Dela Peña

Hair by: Nino John Solis