MODESTO — Pride in self, in style, in heritage stepped out at Downey High School as teens took a turn as international models.
The lunch-hour event Tuesday highlighted Unity Week, a Knights tradition celebrating diversity in and on the student body.
Ethnic costumes from as near as American Indian tribes and as far as Austria paraded down the auditorium steps and back again at the Modesto campus.
Caroline Nuon, wearing a striking turquoise formal dress from Cambodia, said she felt it was an opportunity to show the rich culture of her parents' homeland. "I wanted people to know that culture, that it's a part of who I am," she said.
Austrian exchange student Anja Stiegler wore a traditional apron and tucked bodice dress from her country. She attends a fashion school in Austria, where students especially boys dress up more than in California, she noted.
Ana Cortes wore her grandmother's kimono from her native Japan. She walked with Jessica Neuffer and Lupe Torres, wearing black Japanese garb and two narrow braids. While Japan is not in his genes, Lupe said he's studied Japan and grew the braids to symbolize learning as a student.
For Sheena Bling, Tuesday's event was a chance to wear a favorite outfit she wears to Indian celebrations with her family. "It's fun to have a choice of what to wear for different occasions," Sheena said of her two-wardrobe life.
For Phuong "Mickey" Tran, who came to the United States from Saigon, Vietnam, at age 10, the fashion show let her show off a favorite dress. Friend Selena Balderas also put on Vietnamese wear. "It's a new thing to try out," she said.
A sultry black costume with beaded bodice and filmy leggings from Fiji was worn by Kiana Simonson. "It's a lot of fun to wear," she said. "No one dresses like this in America."
Yosee Madris showed off the frilly, full-skirted purple formal she wore to her quinceañera, celebrating her 15th birthday in traditional Mexican fashion. "I wanted to see people's reaction to our culture," she said, gesturing to her dress with a grin.
After her stroll through the crowd on the arm of Edgardo Larios, she said the experience was "pretty fun, having all those people actually staring at you, actually caring enough to come."
Unity Week organizer Elizabeth Jesberg said the breadth of international diversity at the school surprised her. "Some of these cultures I had no idea about," she said.
The show expanded to 40 students this year, most with ties to the culture they exhibited, but some with just an interest or a friend.
That's the point of Unity Week, Jesberg said, which includes a dance event, a mix-it-up lunch, and a college and career fair. The science teacher took over the event two years ago when Downey lost its activities coordinator to budget cuts.
"I wanted to make sure it was going to keep happening," she said.