Are We Rebels or Not? A Response to Nipple Gate 2023

Are We Rebels or Not? A Response to Nipple Gate 2023

When I was planning content for Fenty Bowl on February 12th, 2023, I knew there was only one dress that was fitting for the day: our custom Crystal Mesh Terno that was inspired by Rihanna’s infamous Swarovski crystal dress, which she wore to the CFDA Awards in 2014. (They're covered in Swarovski crystals, girl!)

In 2022, Caroline and I were in the Philippines for the first time since Covid began to work on production for that year and the next. While we were fabric shopping in a basement mall in Divisoria, a glimmer from a stall caught our attention. We were in love as soon as we saw the crystal mesh fabric up close, and we both instantly thought of the Rihanna dress. We HAD to have it. I think even then, we knew we were about to have a nipple moment.

Cut to a year later — the Instagram Reel of me wearing the dress went up on Super Bowl Sunday, nipples and all. I had a few clips from when Caroline was in LA photographing all of our red carpet and PR garments. Truth be told, I was certain that the post was going to get taken down within a few hours. For the longest time, IG has always been anti-womxn’s nipples, no matter the subject matter of the content. But then a couple hours passed and it was still up. Allegedly, IG rolled back on their conservative guidelines and now ALL nipples were ok on the platform.

The astounding supportive feedback blew me away (thank you, y’all) — but of course there were a few people that had thought otherwise. I anticipated this because the truth is, Filipino people are still largely conservative. There were a few comments about how Filipiniana is supposed to be modest — that it was disgraceful to be showing my body like that in Filipiniana clothing. My favorite comment was Huwag mo babuyin ang Filipiniana namin — translation: “Don’t make our Filipiniana dirty or immoral.” Crazy, I know, but it made me laugh.

To be honest, of the hundreds of positive comments I got, it was the comments of these few conservative folks that made me feel even more empowered and unashamed. Let me explain. It’s one thing to get into my own head about my body sometimes, but it's another thing for someone else to comment negatively towards my body and tell me what I can and cannot wear. What seemed so ‘wala lang’ to Caroline and me was still in fact a radical act in Filipino culture. Posting my body is still political. In a way, the negativity fueled my ego and reaffirmed that we were pushing the boundaries of what Filipiniana is. That we were in fact, on the right track. The epitome of Rebel Filipiniana — a core value of VINTA and a graduation from Modern Filipiniana.

I could have ignored the comments and in fact many supporters encouraged me to do so, but I couldn’t idly let people talk sideways about me and what I (we) believe in, especially when it pertains to suppressive ideologies about our culture. There is real life harm and consequences to misogynistic and patriarchal rhetoric, and we absolutely SHOULD be vocal in pushing back!

Of course, I’m not so naive to think that I will change an internet troll’s mind by clapping back in the comments section — but I have found power in my voice and speaking up for myself. Connecting with Filipiniana and Filipinx fashion through VINTA Gallery has empowered me in more ways than one, and if me being combative inspires even one person to speak up for themselves or feel less ashamed of their own body then that’s a win for me. 

Although well intentioned, I think it’s interesting and even ironic to tell a Filipina womxn to keep quiet with people that are also trying to silence my/our freedom of expression. Quite frankly, Caroline is much more versed and articulate in the history of Filipiniana than I am. I will never claim to have all the answers about what Filipiniana “is and is not.” But what I do know is that we do not model ourselves after the Maria Clara archetype — the personification  of “modest Filipiniana.” There are no Filipiniana Laws. Whomever claims that there is, is just gatekeeping. What I did was not even sacrilegious. This is the beauty of fashion, and this is why VINTA does what it does. There's a reason you don't see much Maria Clara type of Fillipiniana from us. Filipina/o/x’s can be sexy if they want, and there is no shame in that. Are we rebels, or are we not?

When I first discovered VINTA in 2016, I ordered a Lingling-o necklace that came with a few postcards. On one of the postcards was a Filipina womxn with many tattoos wearing a crop barong with no bra. At that time, I was 22 and living in my home state of Ohio. I had NEVER seen anything like that in my life. At this point in my life, my traditional Filipina Nanay was still crying every time I got a new tattoo or piercing, so seeing unabashed Filipinx-ness like that was one of the first times I felt seen. That moment was a catalyst in the trajectory of my life. It allowed me to connect with my culture with new optimism.

Fast forward to 2018, I reached out to Caroline and asked if I could intern for her (a whole other story for later, lol). Fast forward again to 2023, and I’m now the Global Operations Manager for VINTA Gallery. When done right representation can be life-changing, but I think what happens after we see ourselves in other people/our community is where revolution can begin.  

I loved this dress that we made SO much, so to see everyone gush about it was beyond affirming. No matter how much I love myself (hello Leo Sun, Leo Moon lol), of course I still get a bit shy and insecure about my body sometimes. But NEVER will I be ashamed about my body. As a Filipinx womxn, my body will always be political, no matter what the fuck I do. 

All that to say, Nipple Gate was a full circle moment for me.

~ Sydney Cohen