The Friends of Iolani Palace is re-cre­at­ing three gowns of Hawaii’s queens to give vis­i­tors more royal in­sights

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - FRONT PAGE - By Nadine Kam nkam@starad­ver­tiser.com

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.

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