The Fiesta Gowns of San Antonio

It seems oh-so-long-ago that I traveled to San Antonio for the Surface Design Association‘s (SDA) Conference.

I spent my first day in San Antonio putting the final touches on the Color Grid Quilts that were to be displayed at Gallery Nord. I was one of the featured artists for this conference, and eventually we will get to that. But first, The Witte.

The next day, I attended the Pre-Conference Fiber Study Tour. Jane Dunnewold, President of SDA, opened her amazing Art Cloth Studio space to all of the tour participants. I wrote about this visit in an earlier blog post.

After a great morning visiting Jane’s studio, we headed to the The Witte Musuem to see their exhibit of Fiesta gowns. But first we had a great lunch. BBQ, of course, with Elvis.

IMG_6759IMG_6766IMG_6769Prior to the conference, I had read an interesting article in the Surface Design Journal about these gowns and was very much looking forward to seeing them in person. The article looked at all aspects of the dresses–the glitter, the tradition, the politics. This year’s Witte exhibition of the gowns featured dresses from their collection that celebrated a patriotic or military court theme.

IMG_6797The article called “Catching the Light in San Antonio” was writen by Michaele Haynes who is a former curator of collections at the Witte. She has also written a book about the subject.

IMG_6781She was also our tour guide, which meant we got the inside scoop on these gowns–Haynes had spent a great deal of her professional life documenting these gowns and the economic and social controversy surrounding them. You see, not everyone gets a chance to wear one of these gowns–you’ve got to have old San Antonio money.

IMG_6802Here is the story.  All of the quotes are from Haynes’s article.

IMG_6805“The royal robes were first worn in 1909 as part of San Antonio’s annual commemoration of the Battle of San Jacinto, the concluding battle in Texas’s 1836 revolution against Mexico. The celebration, now known as Fiesta, began in 1891 with a parade and rapidly grew into a citywide festival, currently featuring over 100 events.”

IMG_6815There are dozens of “royal courts” whose members wear OVER THE TOP glitzed out gowns. “These gowns are the highlight of an annual spring pageant in which a young woman, surrounded by her court, is crowned Queen of the Order of the Alamo, a private male social organization.” The goal of these gowns–as the title of the article indicates–is to Catch the Light.

IMG_6823Okay- we all know Texans like big things and this is no exception. Basically, this was giant debutant ball done Texas style.

IMG_6826Each year there is a different court theme. Some past themes include Court of Flowers (1909) and Court of Birds (1920). But as time went on, the names got bigger and glitzer–just like the dresses. The names of the royal participants grew too. In 1916 there was a Duchess of Aurora of Fairies. In 2008, there was a Duchess of Transcendent Renaissance Frescoes from the Court of Palatial Magnificence!

IMG_6829Oh the craziness. The royal titles and the designs are created by the mistress of the robes, who is usually the wife of a member of the Order of the Alamo. She works with a court artist. “Five to seven official dressmakers work with the mistress of the robes, and each of them may hire up to ten seamstresses to do much of the sewing and handwork.”

IMG_6838The combined weight of a modern dress and train may be 60 to 100 pounds. One of the most dramatic and challenging moments of the presentation of the court is when the gown wearer must take a complete–all the way to the floor–bow. Here Michael Haynes demonstrates the bow. Can you imagine doing that with an extra 100 pounds attached to your body? I might be able to get down, but getting back up would sure be dicey.

IMG_6786The average cost of a gown is between $35,000 to $50,000.

IMG_6852Lets do the math here–it takes about three years to get the robes from idea to reality. There is one queen, one princess, and 24 duchesses. That’s 26 gowns at $42,500 a pop or approximately 1.105,000 million dollars. Now there are six dressmakers each with ten seamstresses for a total of 66 individuals working for maybe a year-and-a-half making about $16, 750 for their time. I know these are rough estimates, but you get idea. Each gown costs a lot of money, but no where near what it should. Still who can say no to all that shiny stuff? Traditon trumps any economic or social concerns these families might have about participating.

IMG_6790Interestingly, whenever I brought up the topic of these gowns with a locale, their most common response was to roll their eyes and/or throw their hands up in the air in disgust. While no one is stopping this spectacle, it was apparent that there was no consensus on the matter between the royalty of San Antonio and the regular old denizen. Maybe there is such a thing as too big, at least for some Texans.

This entry was published on August 21, 2013 at 11:19 AM. It’s filed under Art in Place and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “The Fiesta Gowns of San Antonio

  1. Pingback: The McNay | Maria Shell

  2. Hi Maria,
    Jerry and I were married and lived in our first home in San Antonio in 1963 when the Villita and the river walk were starting. NO children yet, I spent my time taking art and tennis lessons and trying to grow a cactus on our patio–no enough sun. The food there was fabulous and we learned to love Tex-Mex and all the crafts and jewelry that nearby Mexico offered. So glad you got to be there for your conference. S.C. Carole

  3. Pingback: Summer escape: Fairytale Fiesta exhibit at the Witte Museum | San Antonio Charter Moms

  4. freddie johnson on said:

    An out of town friend asked me if there were any charitable donaitons or benefits that are association with these showy gowns. I don’t know what to tell her; is there?

  5. Jeannie on said:

    Wow, thank you for the information I was looking for. I do try to get to the Witte to see the gowns.

    • If you get a chance to see the gowns do it! And if you get the hear the curator speak that would be even better. It is a fascinating bit of San Antonio culture.

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