A Filipino American Imagination: Reflections on the Met Gala and Heritage
May. Not only is it the time for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), but the first Monday of this month signifies, essentially, the fashion Super Bowl formally known as the Met Gala. And per usual, in addition to other self-proclaimed fashion aficionados, I sat with both my cellphone in hand and Macbook on lap perusing Twitter timelines, the Vogue magazine website and Getty images— reviewing each celebrity outfit as if we are in the New York City front lines as esteemed critics and not regular people on comfy sofas.
(My personal favorites, but definitely not all of the highlights, included SZA, Janelle Monáe, Solange, and Zendaya. Rihanna is obviously one of the best dressed as one of three co-chairs of the Met Gala adorned in custom John Galliano with Christian Louboutin heels. Shoutout to Chadwick Boseman for doing THAT for menswear.)
This year’s theme for the Met Gala was “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination”. This theme really spoke to me. It brings attention to something quite prevalent to my Filipino American upbringing — religion and specifically Catholicism.
I grew up Catholic like many other Filipinx Americans, which makes sense because the Philippines is super Catholic — 85 percent of the Philippines is Christian. I thought nothing of how my Filipino roots were related to Catholicism before coming to college. These important aspects of my life seemed rather separate. But after learning about Philippine history and culture in college, I realized they were not mutually exclusive. Though there is a lot to say about Christianity in the Philippines, and while I am definitely not an expert in the matter, what I will say is that Catholicism was used by the Spanish as a tool with the ill intention of colonizing the Philippines. In succeeding, interestingly enough, Catholicism as a whole? was transformed in the Philippines. Filipinx claimed Catholicism in many ways; pre-colonial practices were mixed with the religion to form Folk Catholicism. In times of hardship, like the People Powers Revolution to overthrow former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, many activists used the figure of Mother Mary to empower themselves.
I think because of such rich context, I have a special connection to this year’s Met Gala theme. Where many of the looks took to European art as reference, once I caught word of the theme, my mind immediately shifted to the Catholic imagery that situates itself in many Filipinx and Filipinx American communities. There is the Santo Niño— an icon of baby Jesus who is often depicted in a beautiful, embellished cape (This picture made me smile. Also this).
There is also Maria Clara — a fictional character of the famous Philippine hero, José Rizal. She is the depiction of controversial Filipina beauty based on purity in parallel to the Virgin Mary that inspired a new sect of fashion. Moreover, I am reminded of the subtle moments from my life: Seeing Santo Niño figures along with Catholic symbols on shelves in my own family’s and my extended families’ houses, the different pamaypays or fans that many would use in churches in the Philippines to combat the intense heat. Though fashion can be thought of something superficial, it can be a historical, artistic vehicle for social commentary. As I said before, there are many complex implications of Catholicism as it exists in Philippine culture that I can’t do justice in this musing of the Met Gala.
There is a lot to say about how the conversion tactics of the Spanish speak to a greater conversation surrounding colonialism. Not to mention that the effects of colonial mentality continue to perpetuate harmful beauty standards, such as colorism and body image, in Filipinx and Filipinx American communities. On a slightly different note, there is a lot to talk about in terms of how some elements of Philippine culture before colonial rule have endured time and transformed Catholic practices to make them unique to the Philippines and its many regions. Aesthetics here can play more sacred roles beyond appearance. I myself frequently think about how Christianity has influenced the experiences of Filipinx families in the United States. But maybe those are even more the reasons why I am so fixated with the Met Gala’s theme. I feel like “Catholic Imagination” fits perfectly in how Filipinx, and Filipinx Americans by consequence, have historically transformed practice while keeping core beliefs intact for the most part. It’s always fun to chit-chat with friends about which celebrities we loved and which celebrities we could not be bothered with on that. That said, this first Monday of May had me thinking about myself: the fashion lover, the Filipino American, and my roots. It would have been so interesting to see more of how Catholicism has metaphorized from cultures that have experienced oppression from conversion like with the Philippines, perhaps even from a Filipinx designer.
Now, who would I want to style for the Met Gala? A couple of names come to mind. Probably eternal Filipina icon Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, the former Miss Universe. Either her or Bretman Rock.