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Vol 19, no. 6
December 2016/ January 2017


Fit for a Queen 
Story By: Kamal Kapadia
Photos By: Elyse Butler

Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, the fiftieth anniversary of her coronation, was a majestic affair, and one had to dress the part. The year was 1887, the place was London and among the multitude of foreign dignitaries looking their very best were Hawai‘i’s Queen Kapi‘olani and her sister-in-law, Princess Lili‘uokalani. The British press took an interest in the Hawaiians, reporting on their social comings and goings and devoting particular attention to one of Kapi‘olani’s dresses.

Kapi‘olani wore the dress at a dinner hosted by the British prime minister and his wife, Lord and Lady Salisbury. It was a low-cut, black evening gown, made in the latest Parisian style. Newspapers across Britain noted the gown’s golden-feathered trim and matching feathered coronet. Plucked from the black-and-yellow Hawaiian ‘o‘o bird, whose colors the gown mirrored, these feathers were reserved for the exclusive use of Hawaiian ali‘i, or royalty. One reporter, assuming the worst, described the sacrifice made by the birds in the name of fashion as “a real Massacre of the Innocents,” although it’s not clear that any birds were actually killed in the making of the dress.

Today, all that remains of that dress is a single feathered medallion, which is tucked away at the Bishop Museum. But a replica of the dress, known as the lei hulu (feather lei) gown, is now on display at Iolani Palace, where both Kapi‘olani and Lili‘uokalani once lived. It is the first of four royal dresses to be recreated through the Ali‘i Gown Reproduction Project.

The complete set will include a black gown detailed with ribbons and a lilac gown adorned with ostrich feathers, both worn by Lili‘uokalani, as well as a blue gown incorporating peacock feathers, which was worn by Kapi‘olani. The Friends of Iolani Palace has headed the project and raised $20,000 for the work. Five additional outfits might someday be added to the set. Each completed dress will be displayed for a few weeks at Bloomingdale’s at Ala Moana Center and then moved to Iolani Palace. All except the ribbon gown blend Victorian style with the kind of elaborate featherwork that was so loved at the time in Hawai‘i. “The goal of the project is to provide visitors with a fresh understanding into the lives of the Hawaiian ali‘i, to enhance the visitor experience and to bring Iolani Palace to life,” says the curator of the palace, Teresa Valencia.

To re-create these long-lost royal dresses, the Friends of Iolani Palace turned to fashion and costume designer Iris Gil Viacrusis, who specializes in Victorian and Edwardian clothing. Best known for creating the nineteenth-century costumes worn by the royal court at the Merrie Monarch Festival, the annual hula celebration held in Hilo, Viacrusis studied fashion and costume design in Los Angeles and Paris. These days he can often be found in his workshop on Hawai‘i Island.

Located halfway down a gravel road in a densely vegetated subdivision in the rural Puna district, Viacrusis’ workshop is not your typical fashion studio. The neighbor across the way runs an orchid nursery. A statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesh guards the workshop door, sprouting orchids from its shoulders. Inside, more than a hundred collectible dolls in lavish costumes stare blankly from shelves. A large worktable dominates the space. Crowded around it are three sewing machines, two sergers and many bolts of fabric. While at work, Viacrusis’ own look is Hawai‘i casual: he wears a short-sleeved linen shirt, shorts and a scarf tied pirate-style on his head. Viacrusis is soft-spoken and a little shy, but his reserve evaporates when he talks about his work. “The designs I like are ultra-classic and ultra-feminine,” he says.

Viacrusis’ passion for historical research becomes apparent as he covers the table with books and folders, all the while talking animatedly. The books have titles like Costume in Detail: 1730-1930 and Royal Hawaiian Featherwork. The folders contain photographs, articles and notes from his internet research and his study trips to various museums. Hundreds of additional photos related to the Ali‘i Gown Reproduction Project are stored on his iPad. He scrolls through his photo collection until he finds a historical shot of the dress he is currently working on: Kapi‘olani’s peacock gown. Even in black and white, the rich details of the velvet gown stand out, with the panels of the skirt and the borders of the neckline and train composed entirely of peacock feathers.

Kapi‘olani ordered the gown from the B. Altman & Co. department store in New York City during a stopover on her journey to England for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. The velvet was of the finest quality, and the queen felt the color complemented her. “My name in Hawaiian means ‘Arch of Heaven,’” she told The New York Times. “And as azure blue and ‘Arch of Heaven’ are synonymous terms, the color would be most appropriate.”

“It’s as haute couture as it could get,” Viacrusis says of Victorian-era Hawaiian court dress. “As superficial as it might seem—it is fashion—it has a lot of historical significance.” His quest to precisely reproduce the gowns—or at least get as close to the originals as he can—drives Viacrusis to unusual lengths. He hunted for over a year online and in dozens of fabric stores in California and Hawai‘i to find the right shade of velvet for the peacock gown. He knew what he was looking for because a fragment of the original gown is preserved at Bishop Museum. When he finally zeroed in on the perfect color, the store he found it in didn’t have enough in stock. So Viacrusis ended up ordering it directly from the manufacturer in Korea. He pulls out the elusive bolt of fabric to show me. It is a luxurious, very royal shade of blue.

The peacock gown, like the other gowns in the project, was made in the latest fashion of the times. Stylish clothing was part of a modern, cosmopolitan royal culture: King Kalakaua traveled around the world, and both he and Lili‘uokalani, his sister, were fluent in English. Kalakaua modernized Iolani Palace, furnishing it with the latest amenities, including flush toilets, a telephone and—seventeen years before Buckingham Palace saw its first lightbulb—electric lights. “They needed to present the Hawaiian Kingdom in this manner,” Viacrusis says. “A lot of people say they squandered the money, but I say it comes with the territory.” 

The dresses Kapi‘olani and Lili‘uokalani wore in London might have been in the latest Western fashion, but their most eye-catching features drew from an ancient Hawaiian art form: featherwork. To reproduce these elements, Viacrusis turned to experts such as Momi Szirom, a member of a Hilo-based collective of featherwork artists called Lei Hulu. A petite woman with bright eyes, Szirom drops in at Viacrusis’ workshop for a visit sporting a Panama hat with a band of iridescent purple-black feathers; the band is her own handiwork. Szirom made the feathered swags—the long, yellow feather lei—that drape across the skirt of the lei hulu gown.

As the ‘o‘o is long extinct, Szirom used goose feathers dyed golden yellow. She sorted them by size and curl, trimming them to precise lengths. Using a tiny toothbrush, she brushed them until they took on the wispy look of ‘o‘o feathers. She then bundled and tied them to cords in closely packed concentric rings, producing an effect that is simultaneously luxurious and delicate. Altogether Szirom put more than four hundred hours into the lei hulu gown’s featherwork. “It’s very meditative,” she says, demonstrating her skill with deft, precise movements.

While we talk, Viacrusis’ partner, Sean Spellicy, is engrossed in preparing the feathers for the peacock gown, trimming each small neck feather to exactly 1.25 inches. A panel on the skirt requires about four thousand feathers. There are two such panels, and that’s just the skirt; the bodice and train, with their feathered borders, will need tens of thousands more. But Spellicy plugs away, unfazed by the magnitude of the job, taking it one feather at a time. 

The dresses Viacrusis is re-creating are part of a tumultuous history: The Kalakaua dynasty was the last to rule a sovereign Hawai‘i. Its reign was marked by upheavals and ended abruptly when a group of antimonarchists forced Queen Lili‘uokalani to abdicate in 1893. While Kapi‘olani and Lili‘uokalani enjoyed their visit to England, their trip was marred by a disturbing development back home: King Kalakaua’s political opponents forced him to sign what has become known as the Bayonet Constitution, which stripped him of much of his power. The royal women must have been filled with misgivings as they traveled back to Hawai‘i, though nobody knows for sure how they were feeling. Viacrusis, however, has a pretty good idea of what they were wearing.

He talks excitedly about Lili‘uokalani’s traveling gown; it’s his favorite. Funds for its reproduction are not yet secured, but that hasn’t stopped him from researching its design. Thanks to his training, Viacrusis knows the gown is composed of separate pieces: a jacket, a skirt and a blouse. A photograph of Lili‘uokalani reveals some details of the jacket and skirt, but the blouse is entirely hidden. To reproduce the outfit, Viacrusis needs to know what the blouse looked like. Given the style and era, he surmised the creator was probably Charles Worth, an English designer popular with European royalty and considered by many fashion historians to be the father of haute couture. To confirm his hunch, Viacrusis compared a Charles Worth design from a book he owns with the picture of Lili‘uokalani’s traveling gown. The similarities were striking. More research revealed that an original traveling gown by Charles Worth from the same period still exists in the collection of the National Museum of American History in Washing-ton, DC. So Viacrusis travelled to DC to examine the ensemble, which includes multiple swappable blouses. The trip was well worth his time; he returned with hundreds of photographs, including close-ups of the intricate frills on the blouses and of the hidden boning of the skirt.

Viacrusis’ eye for detail also led to other important discoveries. The original ostrich feather gown, which is at Bishop Museum, is a creamy ivory color. But when Viacrusis examined the fabric hidden in the seams, he found traces of something else. The true color of the gown, he realized, was lilac; the exposed silk had oxidized over time, changing the color to ivory. Similar detective work helped him unearth a practical side to Lili‘uokalani. By comparing a series of photos taken in different years, Viacrusis discovered that her black ribbon gown had been repurposed a few times over. He also helped Bishop Museum connect the yellow feather medallion in its collection to the lei hulu gown. Though the original lei hulu gown has followed the path of the ‘o‘o whose feathers were plucked to make it, the medallion survives as a symbol of a once-grand royal culture.

When I return to Viacrusis’ workshop for a second visit, he fits me into a corset pulled over my clothes. Reinforced with steel-coil boning, it is a close replica of the corsets worn by Kapi‘olani and Lili‘uokalani. I exhale and yelp when Viacrusis yanks the ribbons tight. Corset secured, I don a gorgeous magenta Victorian gown that Viacrusis made for another project some years ago. I gasp for air and wince at the painful cinching at my waist. But also, the corset pushes my shoulders back and forces me to stand tall. When I sit, there is no option to slouch. Viacrusis says the corset served a purpose—if you were a monarch expected to sit for hours receiving visitors at your court, it helped to have an inner structure that kept you looking tall and regal. For a moment, in an odd confluence of pomp, perfect posture and pain, I understand what it must have felt like to be a queen.