GOWNS FIT FOR ROYALTY
The Friends of Iolani Palace is re-creating three gowns of Hawaii’s queens to give visitors more royal insights
The Friends of Iolani Palace is re-creating three dresses worn by Hawaii’s queens >>
Hawaii’s royals were like you and me in at least one respect: When clothing outlived its usefulness, they repurposed or got rid of it. The idea that their attire might one day be treasured as historical artifacts did not occur to the alii at a time when they were struggling with the bigger issue of preserving the Hawaiian kingdom.
As a result, few monarchy-era garments survive. So the Friends of Iolani Palace has launched the Alii Gown Reproduction Project to re-create three of the famed gowns seen in portraits of Hawaii’s queens. The aim is to offer palace visitors more insight into the public and personal lives of the alii.
Queen Kapiolani’s lei hulu (feather lei) gown is the first to be completed and will be on view on the ground floor at Bloomingdale’s, Ala Moana Center, through April 18. After that, the gown will be installed at Iolani Palace as part of the museum’s permanent exhibit.
The Friends commissioned Big Island artist Iris Viacrusis to create the reproductions. Originally from California, Viacrusis studied Edwardian and Victorian fashion in Paris and worked in theater costuming before moving to Hawaii, where the historical costumes he created for the Merrie Monarch Festival court caught the eye of museum officials.
“The alii were very fashion-forward for their day,” Viacrusis said. “While they sought out the top dressmakers in New York, London and Paris, they put their own Hawaiian twist in the designs with lei hulu, peacock features and other elements that were rooted in their culture.”
All the garments are being reconstructed true to Victorian-era construction details, with corsetry, petticoats, bustles and fabric similar to those found during the 19th century. The original lei hulu gown is of velvet, graced with yellow oo feathers. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the last oo was sighted in 1934 and declared extinct in 1988, so Viacrusis re-created the feather work using goose feathers that were dyed yellow. He was helped by Lei Hulu of Hilo, a group of artisans who came together to preserve and perpetuate the art of Hawaiian feather work.
Viacrusis is now at work re-creating Queen Kapiolani’s peacock gown, shown in a photo on display in her bedroom at the palace. Kapiolani commissioned the original gown to wear to Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London, which she attended with then-crown Princess Liliuokalani in 1887. The gown was made with materials from New York department store B. Altman & Co., in an azure color Kapiolani felt was synonymous with her name, which she translated for reporters as “Arch of Heaven.” The extravagant gown was described at length by The New York Times.
“Queen Victoria requested that foreign dignitaries come in something that represents their culture,” said Viacrusis. “The Hawaiian monarchs took so much pride in it as a way of telling the world who the Hawaiians are.”
This was important at a time when Hawaiians were portrayed in the press as savages, and Viacrusis said that by following European style, “the monarchs hoped to show the world they had beauty and grace, and it was important for me as a historian to represent that.
“They were very mindful of paying homage to their culture through various adornments. Their crowns had the kalo leaf as part of the design. The king’s coronation jacket had gold embroidery of the kalo, and Queen Kapiolani’s jubilee ensemble also featured a velvet cape with embroidery of palapalai ferns.”
They employed seamstresses to alter and keep their garments up to date.
Viacrusis was able to study some of the alii garments in the Bishop Museum collections. He said all that remains of the peacock gown in known collections is its court train. “The main body is missing.” Like many of today’s bridal or red-carpet ensembles, the royal apparel was created with separates for versatility.
“During that period, gowns normally had a couple of tops, or bodices, and a separate skirt because they didn’t dress the same for day and night. They might have had a top with long sleeves and a high neck for afternoon tea, and decollete for evening. It was the same with a ballgown train that could be removed so they could walk around without being attended by a lady in waiting,” Viacrusis said.
Because of the piece nature of the garments, separates became scattered over the years, whether passed down to family members or sold.
“Due to the turbulence of the times, the alii didn’t know their future, and there was always the fear that the palace would be ransacked. They had to do something, so they tried to sell things,” Viacrusis said.
Kapiolani’s gown was sold for $50 to a Mrs. Madder, who removed the train and transformed the gown into a holoku. When she died her heirs discovered the train and donated it to Bishop Museum.
Iolani Palace curator Teresa Valencia said it costs about $3,500 to $5,000 to reproduce a single gown, and funding for the initial round of garments was made possible by a donation from Judy Leach, a member of Lei Hulu of Hilo, with a passion for featherwork.
The third dress to be recreated is Queen Liliuokalani’s ostrich feather gown, and The Friends of Iolani Palace is hoping to add four more pieces if more funds become available. Viacrusis has his sights on Princess Kaiulani’s portrait gown.
“She was the epitome of the Gibson girl with her tiny waist.”
Queen Victoria requested that foreign dignitaries come in something that represents their culture. The Hawaiian monarchs took so much pride in (dress) as a way of telling the world who the Hawaiians are.”
Iris Viacrusis Big Isle artist who was commissioned to re-create the gowns of Hawaii’s monarchs
A sketch of Queen Kapiolani’s lei hulu gown by Iris Viacrusis, whose completed reproduction is seen at right along with a photo of the monarch. The gown is on view at Bloomingdale’s through April 18.
Work on a reproduction of an ostrich gown worn by Queen
Liliuokalani, inset, is slated to begin late summer.