Before the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. last Saturday, March 30, the College Center Multi-Purpose Room (CCMPR) was populated with empty chairs and filled with silence, except for a few last-second preparations. By 7 p.m., the CCMPR buzzed with people; the space became a standing-room-only venue. The runway—a long, narrow strip of well-lit carpet—split the sea of chairs and people. The models waited anxiously in an adjacent room. The Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA) Fashion Show was about to start.
The fashion show is just one example of ASA’s efforts to give a voice to Asian students and make their presence better known on Vassar’s campus. ASA hosted a similar fashion show nearly four years ago, but the event did not become a regular part of the org’s programming. Many of those who participated and spectated at the time have since graduated, leaving only a few who remember the original event. Saturday’s show marked the long-awaited revival of this ASA tradition, which the current ASA Executive Board hopes to continue in the future.
This year’s show elicited a strong demonstration of support from students, even surpassing organizers’ expectations. “When we were planning it, we knew there weren’t going to be that many chairs, so we left a space for people to stand,” said ASA Treasurer Johnson Lin ’21 from the corner of a Gordon Commons booth. Even after creating the standing space, Lin did not expect it to be necessary. “I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, if that many people come.’ And people were there! People were on the couches, people were standing—it was crazy,” Lin commented.
The sheer number of attendees was either a source of anticipation, anxiety or both. Model Ceci Villaseñor ’22 fell in the former camp. She recalled via email, “Even before walking on, you could hear everyone cheering, and when you finally walked down the runway and saw how packed the room was, it was exciting to be in a crowd excited to be there.”
Villaseñor’s relaxed attitude under the watchful eye of such a large audience highlighted an additional layer of her culture distinct from fashion. Performance in Villaseñor’s experience is not a one-off, but a familiar experience stemming from her hometown: “I was lucky enough to grow up in a very strong Filipino-American community that emphasized the performing arts, especially music and dance.” However, the ASA show provided an additional perspective. She elaborated, “I’ve been wearing Filipino costumes since I was old enough to perform in my Filipino school’s shows, but while I’ve always appreciated those costumes, I’ve never had an opportunity to showcase the clothing itself. I also think that fashion is often overlooked when learning about an ethnic group’s culture.”
For the exhilarated group of observers, Villaseñor donned a Maria Clara gown, a Spanish twist on the national dress of the Philippines, during the traditional half of the show. Her dress powerfully embodied her Filipino culture and its past. She described her decision process: “I wanted to wear something that reflected the Philippines’ history of Spanish colonization, since it’s something that is unique to the Philippines. Maria Clara is also the name of a character from a novel by the national hero, José Rizal, so the dress is named after her.”
Villaseñor expressed that, relative to other facets of culture like food and holidays, fashion is an undervalued lens through which to understand ethnic groups and their daily lives.
Being a Filipina who attended Filipino cultural school, Villaseñor found it difficult to connect to her roots at Vassar. “In the Asian community which can sometimes feel East Asian-dominated…I felt like I had to qualify my Asian-ness for the first time—I wasn’t Asian, I was Southeast Asian. So being part of a fashion show for overall Asian cultures and having Filipino culture celebrated and embraced was a really positive experience,” she reflected.
Other models reacted differently to the crowd, as well as to the personal and collective significance of the event. In an emailed statement, model Weipeng Xie ’22 revealed that he found the large crowd rather daunting. This was primarily because he had stepped out of his comfort zone, not only by being present in front of such a huge gathering, but also by doing so with unfamiliar accessories, such as makeup and earrings, to pull off the look Lin wanted. When he did venture onto the runway, however, he found open arms. He described, “I was greeted by cheers and claps, which was very settling. It felt that I was not being judged by my inexperience. I felt encouraged to take another step forward into the spotlight.”
Illuminated by the figurative light of the audience’s attentive gaze and the literal lights suspended above the runway, Xie displayed traditional Japanese garb. “The main piece I wore was a fireman’s undercoat dating back to the Edo Period of Japan. Underneath, I wore a more modern formal…black dress shirt tucked into a pair of black pants and black dress shoes,” he enumerated. The undercoat, the design of which dates back 300 years, was complemented with other traditional elements such as a handmade Japanese canvas bag with a happi belt tied to it. This is one example of the 12 modern models and fashion sets, all striving to represent a melange of traditional Asian fashions and more avant-garde elements.
Cultivating a diverse environment to celebrate the broader Asian identity expanded beyond just fashion. Lin strove to structure the fashion show with careful attention to detail. “The modern show was all over the place in terms of themes—there wasn’t a very consistent style. That was intentional because I wanted to show that the Asian experience is very different, and we are all coming from different places. We are all still Asian, yet it is really hard to define an Asian experience,” Lin explained. He chose music from a broad swath of Asian identities, including artists such as Indian-American R&B singer Raveena, Indonesian artists Rich Bryan and Nik, Thai singer Phum Viphurit and Korean rapper Sik K, among others.
While these components reinforced the inclusive atmosphere of the event, the momentous occasion ultimately focused on the power of fashion to represent individual and collective identities. The centrality of fashion was not lost on Xie. “Clothing is wearable art or wearable history,” he stated. “It could be a set of armor which people [use to] stay in their comfort zone and retains a certain value and shield[s] people from change; it could also be a gateway to express emotions, ideas, and stories to the world.” Fashion, Xie concluded, carries so much potential because “It invites other people into your mind, your background, and your perspective.”