You know, 2015 has been deeply questionable in innumerable ways, but one thing it has undeniably brought us is two Miss Universe contests in one year. We have seriously lucked out, getting TWO National Costume events at a pageant that has only this year escaped from under the repulsive thumb of Donald Trump and into the hands of corporate overlords who aren’t famous enough yet for us to know how repulsive they are. (Whoever is in charge now, they made the contestants do chicken noises as part of the many-languages gags they run as filler in many charming Vegas locales. The contestants looked incredulous that somehow punishing diets and instant choreography and learning the sort of pageant regulations that led an announcer of the pageant to point out that Indonesia walks too fast and will get penalized were not enough to worry about; they also had to make chicken noises. This pageant, everyone.)

I won’t talk much here about the pageant itself (which, this greatness aside, is your standard Awkward Swimsuit Dressage Parade followed by the Remarkably Specific and Complicated Twenty-Second Question and some evening wear), though I have definitely thought about it; there is a fascinating gulf between the skill set that gets you the win versus the skill set that gets you out of there, and the more you learn about the regs the more fascinating things get. (This year, my novel PERSONA came out, and you can absolutely see the influence of this pageant in some of the construction of the International Assembly, in big ways – celebrity faux-ambassadors with no real political sway struggling against one another for their share of the cameras to benefit their countries – and small: Suyana Sapaki’s wardrobe struggles as she faces down a career’s worth of Lush Rainforest dresses.)

A thing that happened this year at the pageant that defies fiction: Host Steve Harvey read off the first runner-up as the winner, which means Miss Colombia was Miss Universe for literally three minutes, until he realized what had happened and had to retract it on national television as Miss Philippines was sheepishly crowned with the tiara lifted gingerly from Miss Colombia’s hair, already beginning to frost over with the sheer power of her burgeoning revenge. (You can see that slow-motion wreck here, but it looked like this.)

Given the rest of his hosting job, I can only assume he was so occupied writing twenty variations of the comment that young women in bikinis are good things for men to look at that he never made it to a rehearsal, or watched the end of Miss Congeniality, or spoke to a producer, or did anything that would suggest he knows what even the most casual viewer knows: It is not time to announce the winner until you announce first runner up and then breathlessly continue “WHICH MEANS THAT” to give the actual winner time before her name is called to steeple her fingers over her mouth and nose and bend carefully at the knees in the traditional pose that indicates acceptance of the title.

It’s all so dramatic it almost overshadows the National Costume Competition; luckily, nothing in the world can actually overshadow this competition. As always, the rest of it is a combination of carefully-calculated, sequined risk. Ideally the outfit will represent something about the country’s heritage or flag or recognizable symbol, I guess, but honestly nothing in the world is played faster and looser than the patriotic expectations surrounding this event. And that suits me just fine, particularly since this year’s dress rehearsal photos revealed a lot more personality than many of these contestants usually allow themselves, and that makes up for about a dozen glamour shots.

How the pageant wanted you to feel about Miss Thailand’s tuktuk dress, which won this segment of the competition:

How she actually felt about it:

That seems about right.

This year’s most impressive costume, for sheer wingspan: Nicaragua, because are you shitting me, just look at this:

And as stunning as this is onstage, just imagine it as she walks through the halls backstage, knocking makeup assistants right to the ground with the wind shear, collecting backstage photographers in giant dustballs that roll ahead of her glory all the way to the stage lights.

She was also the best of a significant group of women who carried battle staffs with them onstage, presumably auditioning for roles as comic book wizards.

BATTLE STAFF DIVISION

Spain’s ode to Don Quixote, which even for this competition brought new heights of surreal acceptance, both from me and from the woman they pulled a Half-Gandalf on. “Is her hair a windmill?” you ask. It sure is – but only half of one! No need to go overboard. (She’s the time traveler, obviously; she’s earned it.)

South Africa. She is incredible, that outfit is incredible, that staff is incredible. She can be literally any kind of wizard she wants, I have zero objections.

Paraguay. So, everybody got a tiny introductory comment this year as the camera panned frenetically around their costume. Some people got notes about the meaning of their costumes, which was useful and interesting and the sort of thing you want from commentary about a multinational pageant, and then some people got notes about how tall they were, or things they like. (Somebody on that stage is 27 years and 8 months old, and the announcer mentioned that as her fun fact like Father Time was going to drop her literally any second.) What I am saying is, I love everything about this costume, and she is going to make an amazing wizard who presumably never shows up unless there’s catering and some five-star hotel linens in it for her, but if the announcer had explained the hat on top of her staff to me, it would have been great.

Honduras, holding an accessory that’s technically not a staff, but she did not drag a sequined animal familiar AND the bones of her enemies out onto that stage to listen to us lecture her on what hand-held accessories officially constitute a staff, you know?

Argentina might agree, but she can’t hear you over the eight bars of orchestral losing-your-shit music she’s playing in her earbuds as she walks around in a dress that, the announcer mentioned, weighs 70 pounds. Her staff would be bigger than just a mask holder if she could physically carry it; the fact that she can offhandedly raise it that high already has my respect. It counts as a staff.

Bolivia, ice witching the living hell out of this entire business.

I thought Indonesia was holding a staff in this picture until I actually saw the broadcast, and frankly I can’t believe they’d send her out there with this staggering display and not give her a third point of balance with a pole, because that’s just a structural danger. Full marks for managing without.

And Panama, whose arm tabards (which are worthy of all praise) missed the mark on being a staff, just as her wheel of feathers (truly magnificent) missed the mark on another big trend this year. No wonder she looks so done.

That trend was wings!



WINGS, GODDAMMIT

Fly, Russia! Break the bonds of earth and seek the gilded skies!

Germany! I know you look like the Skipper version of Russia’s Barbie, and judging by your expression you do too, but it’s fine, go ahead!

Bahamas! Your costume designer made you chest sperms and gave you a neon modesty patch, which I think is a little arbitrary in terms of applying the theme, frankly, but that’s not your fault, and those butterfly wings everywhere else are adorable! Soar!

Great Britain, what are you doing. You do a Queen Elizabeth thing, or occasionally an apologetic guard costume; that’s your wheelhouse. What were you thinking sending your rep out here in this? This is the sad trombone of trying to compete with the countries who have this feather business on lock.

Hearken, Denmark, to the call of the zephyrs! If the sheer weight of your boots allow you, join us in our hypnotic flight! (If you are thinking of casting any aspersions on these boots, don’t; they are the swan feet of the pageant world and it’s perfect.)

Poland! I know you look confused here but I promise it’s cool, just think positive thoughts and put a little shoulder muscle into it and you’ll be fine, you even have a tail for stability, which was smart! (Was she looking at Denmark here and wondering if she had gone far enough? Maybe. That’s got to be chilling: Am I Enough Bird For This?)

Curacao. Her facial expression is priceless. Be free, Curacao. Free of all this.

Venezuela, soon to be adopted as the official bird of Las Vegas; may your formal wings stretch into the very farthest reaches of the air!

USA! You’re totally outclassed, but you made your hat a beak, which I guess gets points for commitment! Sure! Fine! Fly!

Haiti, I can’t say those feather gloves were a SMART move, but they’re definitely a bold one, and that wingspan is impressive. Kick all their asses on long-range flights.

Angola, why did anyone else even try to match you. This is untouchable. You are sublime.

Belgium, you’re fired.

I guess nobody could be assed to get a full-body picture of you, Tanzania, but you’re making the best of it. Your outfit is sharp; your hat…present; your wings adorable.

But don’t be fooled by Peru; she may be pretending she has wings, but she’s just trying to avoid landing in the category she knows she’s best suited for. For that, she gets assigned the role of Brianna, Mary’s new lady in waiting. Good luck getting married six times to various guest-star nobles, Peru!



COSTUMES FROM REIGN DIVISION

Okay, honestly, Miss Montenegro for Queen Elizabeth. Look at that expression; that focus; that careless handling of her own train. Let’s just start that whole subplot over again, it’s not too late.

If we’re just gonna recast, why not Miss Croatia for Queen Mary, then? She’s really selling the steely determination; that dress is selling the high romance. Sold.

Kosovo IS Duchess Caitlyn, a new arrival from the countryside determined to win Bash for her own…until she learns his horrible secret! (His horrible secret is that none of his plots have anything to do with the A story. Bummer, Caitlyn.)

Sweden IS trying a little too hard with this one. Relegated to background.

The Netherlands IS Gerta, a wily Dutch smuggler whose eye for adventure will draw her to the vivacious Kenna – but is she a savior, or a danger? (Full disclosure: The back of this cape has The Night Watch printed on it. I’d straight-up wear this cape. However, when making a stage cape out of a work of art, consider how much fabric you can squeak out of the shape, because you’re going to want at least a half-circle, minimum, for historical/twirling purposes. This is some peasant yardage right here.)

Georgia IS making a fairly strong case for being the new Queen Catherine, if we absolutely must recast everybody.

And Albania IS a madam from the next duchy over, challenging Greer to a fight for domination of the PG brothel market! Albania might win, too — that’s a confident stance — but honestly, we’ve never seen Greer in a fistfight either; I bet she plays dirty.

Technically, Albania is also making an attempt at a national costume, so we should probably talk about that.



VAGUE ATTEMPTS AT A NATIONAL COSTUME DIVISION

Norway. You are never going to get anything but this from Norway. Norway indulges this contest but is not invested; you are going to get a bunad every year until the solar system suffers heat death.

Vietnam looks beautiful.

Bulgaria, who looks like she juuuuust this second lost the fight backstage to wear traditional shoes and is still really furious at whoever made her wear the ones she’s wearing.

Ukraine! The announcer explained this outfit was to honor Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe, and of all the costumes I feel like I could have parsed without their help, this is pretty much the top of the list. That is a waste of a factoid. (Ukraine herself looks lovely.)

Philippines. She looks fabulous, I have nothing to add. (Except that I’m so sorry about the thing that happened, I’m just so sorry.)

Korea, lovely. (I wish I knew what she was reacting to; she cannot fucking believe whatever it is.)

Gabon, whose healthy skepticism only adds to the charm of this outfit.

Portugal. Very nice!

Mexico. Sure!

China; I admit I would have been happy with another Guo Pei deconstructed-plate gown, but this is great.

Japan looks great even if nobody got a picture of her onstage.

Greece, whose face is exactly the face I would be making if I could wear a chiton every year and get away with it clean.

And France. Another current event dress, for which I have zero snark. France made the top 5 for the first time in a while, and everyone seemed to understand that it was as a favor to a long-running participant country, and they must have come into this knowing the weight of all this symbolism was on them. There was nothing else this team could have done except make sure their contestant showed up in this dress.

And if you thought any of that was awkward, I have news for you.



AW JEEZ DIVISION

Canada. So let’s be honest; some of the cultural symbolism of these costumes is only clear if a) someone points it out in the course of actually announcing things that are useful or b) you are familiar enough with everything to get it without an assist. (The only factoids anyone wants to know about the national costume intros are the factoids about the national costumes; I will continue to say this until they actually implement it.) So there are equivalents of this needle-scratch moment everywhere that have their own cultural tensions and raise eyebrows, and pass me by completely because I have no idea and I’m making sparkly-wizard notes, and I fully acknowledge that. I am, however, aware enough of the current political situation of the First Nations in Canada to humbly suggest that Canada might want to knock this particular idea off their list for next year, because a totem pole is iffy, but Miss Canada knows a showgirl totem pole is a step too far, and so does Canada.

Turkey is taking this assignment a little too literally.

“Dame Edna feels a bit…narrow.”
“What if we added Sydney Opera House shoulder pads?”
“Bonza.”

Miss New Zealand. She looks so sad…more than a femme fatale in a Luc Besson sci-fi caper, not quite a bird yet.

Ireland, taking the Started the Night Before crown for the fifth consecutive year, in a double cape — TWO capes, she had to shove the first one backwards so she could reach the second one when she only had as much time as it takes to say “Ireland” to do any of it in! — that still can’t save any of this whole business.

Austria cosplaying as Conchita Wurst. As topical hat-tips go, this might seem arbitrary, but the audience overlap makes it worth it, and honestly among the rest of it this costume hardly registered; no current-event dress will ever be as pointed as the year Chile dressed like a glitzy miner.

Sometimes I make fun of a terrible choice because it’s fairly obvious where the problem is. But sometimes the actual costume is executed sufficiently and I just genuinely don’t understand the choice underlying the design. Most countries have to know who has spectacle on lock; the patterns kind of establish themselves. And if you have a gorgeous national costume that doesn’t require four assistants and a separate plane, why not use that? India has the sari, a truly gorgeous garment that’s both instantly recognizable and easy to glitz up to match the Vegas of the occasion. Why this? I’m honestly asking.



BEST EXPRESSIONS DIVISION

Singapore. “You’re not going to tell anyone how much these flowers weigh when I stagger out here? Fine! I don’t need this! I don’t need aaaaaaany of this. Peace! Singapore OUT.”

Malaysia. “I wanted to look like the queen of a supernatural realm in a fantasy movie, and I goddamn nailed it.”

British Virgin Islands. “No, I know. No, I’m an indigenous flower, that’s the stamen. This is the – no, I know. No, I know.”

El Salvador. “No, I KNOW.”

Myanmar. “So my factoid is going to be telling everyone I’m wearing $10k in gold and not about my musical instrument? No, I mean, that’s fine, but I literally flew it all the way out here and I was hoping to share a little of – no, you know what, it’s fine. It’s fine.”

Ghana. I wish I knew how to make people’s faces into emojis, because I would use Miss Ghana’s face for about 90% of all life events, because it’s perfect. The longer you look at her the more sublime it gets.

I don’t know what happened, but Lebanon is so maaaad about it her face got stuck.

And last but not least…

Hungary. We will never get better than this; from her hat, to her expression, to the person assigned to her train because somehow a folded train is what’s going to ruin the line of this Rubik’s Cube gown, this photo is sublime. Thank you, Miss Universe, for making it possible.