The semiotics of Catriona Gray

"What does it mean to be Filipinx?"



Not only a matter for national pride, Catriona Gray’s Miss Universe victory also compels people to take a closer look at issues related to national identity and how they construct and express their ideas of what it is to be Filipinx.

The 24-year-old half-Australian and half-Albayana grew up in Australia and went to college in the United States. She did not move to the Philippines until she was a teenager.

But despite her limited time in-country, Gray has shown a remarkable interest in Philippine culture and an intense desire to share and promote it.

At the pageant, Gray showed how seriously she took her role as an ambassadress of our country to the world. Her clothes were designed and sewn by Filipinx designers and craftspersons, and each gown and piece of jewelry referenced something related to the Philippines.

Gray’s dress designer Mak Tumang said on Facebook posts that she was working with him on concepts for her Miss U finals gown as early as March this year. “I know it’s super early,” Gray told him, “just wanted to research.”

 Tumang wrote that the orange feather-patterned evening gown Gray wore for the preliminary was inspired by the “Adarna Bird, Phoenix, [Miss U] Mikimoto Crown.”

For the finals, Gray wore a red, orange, and yellow gown inspired by the Mayon Volcano in Albay. Tumang likened her to the mythical heroine Daragang Magayon (beautiful maiden) who legend says the gods turned into a volcano after her death.

Most overt with its use of symbols was Gray’s national costume, a collaboration of designers Jearson Dimavivas, Jojo Bragais, and Eric Quiwa, that has elements referencing the islands of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Gray wore a pantsuit and boots covered with patterns taken from 16th century sketches of tattooed Visayans in the Boxer Codex. Her backdrop was a parol that bore words in baybayin and illustrations from Philippine culture.

Gray also wore a t’nalak dress for a Miss U activity in Thailand. Her jewelry by Tessera, an ear cuff dubbed “Three Stars and a Sun” and earrings with similar motifs, evoked the flag.

But Gray’s choice to showcase Philippine symbols and culture has an impact well beyond fashion and tourism.

In an interview by Regine Cabato for Washington Post, Ateneo de Manila assistant professor of literature and gender studies J. Pilapil Bocobo said, “I do feel that of all our contestants, Catriona is the most intellectual—the most post-colonial.”

As a people we are struggling in the aftermath of colonialism, seeking to construct a national identity; ours still seems to be indeterminate, in flux, despite our assertions of having assimilated many elements of Spanish and American colonial culture and ‘made it our own.’ We are still to some extent confused and conflicted, our past and present at odds as we look to the future.

Gray’s manifest and prolific use of Philippine symbols could be seen as her efforts to make sense of her own identity as half-foreign and half-Filipinx, and to craft and express the Philippine side of her persona.

She might also have sought to decolonize her self-expression in the pageant and to bring a more “authentic” character to her representation. In doing so she paves the way for others to rethink and reconstruct their own ideas on national identity.

Is being Filipinx as easy as wearing Philippine textiles and materials, and integrating Philippine symbols and references in what we wear and use? It is not that easy, and it is a simplistic approach; but as a start it is good enough, because it makes us think and remember, and perhaps love.

With her track record so far, we can expect Gray to continue to a certain extent the same promotion of Philippine design and materials throughout her year-long reign as Miss Universe.

We can also expect people to take a greater interest in our country, its culture, and heritage, as we seek to construct and redefine what it means for us to be Filipinx. 

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Dr. Ortuoste thinks Catriona did our country proud. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: Jenny Ortuoste , Catriona Gray , Miss Universe
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