Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Although sometimes maligned as hoity-toity and outmoded, one of San Antonio’s oldest Fiesta traditions – the Order of the Alamo’s royal court and coronation – is as strong as ever and still the most lavish and expensive of all Fiesta events.
Other organizations have introduced their own courts and coronations, gowns and crowns, as an elevated way of celebrating Fiesta and raising money for their charitable missions. Presenters of Cornyation, begun in 1951 to lampoon the “real” coronation, might argue that their five nights of ribaldry have more sequins and ruffles. Possibly, but who’s counting?
Whether or not you approve of the Order of the Alamo, an exclusive and all-male organization, and the women who marry or are born into it, it’s hard not to feel gobsmacked by the royal court’s finery, a veritable fairyland, as a Witte Museum exhibit featuring the gowns called it.
The dresses and their trains, up to 18 feet long and weighing as much as 100 pounds, dazzle the eye. Rhinestones and beads hand-embroidered onto richly colored velvet and shiny brocades flow along the dresses’ skirts and trains, each in a unique design reflecting the court member’s often-fanciful title.
They well could hang on museum walls – or museum mannequins – and many do. For decades, families have donated dresses to the Witte, known for promoting South Texas heritage, and the museum frequently displays dresses during Fiesta. Pop Up! Fiesta in the Galleries opened Thursday and continues through April 29.
Many consider the gowns and trains to be works of art, and some former Fiesta royalty display them in their homes. Jan Hill, who was Mistress of the Robes for the 2011 Court of Timeless Treasures, has one of her two duchess daughters' trains draped across a baby grand piano. A dazzling headpiece adorns a dining room armoire.
“Mine’s in the attic,” said Bunny Matthews, who was the Duchess of Enchantment and Romance in the 1959 Coronation, representing her hometown of Kerrville.
Some dresses get new life in the Witte’s Fiesta pin and medal designs.
“This year’s ‘pin dress’ is one that we have planned for a couple of years to coincide with the Tricentennial,” said chief curator Amy Fulkerson. “There is no better time to have a pin and medal inspired by the Princess of Eternal Freedom bearing the Alamo on her train.” The dress was part of the 1967 Court of San Antonio de Bejar.
While critics may rail against the cost of the dresses as being wastefully expensive, the business of preparing for the annual coronation in the Majestic Theatre has provided income for countless dressmakers for more than a century. In modern times, dressmakers employ teams of seamstresses and embroiderers as well as apprentices who can take the baton as years pass and old age intervenes.
“The artists and designers are volunteers,” said Hill, “but the seamstresses and their teams are all paid by the families.”
The economic impact is considerable as royal courts typically number 24 young women – including a queen, a princess, and duchesses. The San Antonio Symphony, dance groups, and other performers also receive payment for participating in the coronation.
As for the actual cost of the dresses, the subject is taboo.
“You don’t ask a rancher how many acres his ranch is, and you don’t ask the parents of a duchess what their daughter’s Fiesta gown cost,” said a former debutante familiar with the workings of San Antonio’s upper crust. “You just don’t.”
However, a woman who was a court member about five years ago reports that gowns for the duchesses ranged from $30,000 to $40,000 and the queen's dress cost as much as $60,000 for labor and materials.
So much grandeur takes three years of planning on the part of the Mistress of the Robes, who is chosen by the Order’s Coronation Chair. Marnie Simpson, Mistress of the Robes in 2017, said the Mistress usually is someone familiar with the coronation, such as a former duchess or mother of one. The Mistress develops and researches a theme, then works with a “court artist” and sketch artist to turn an idea into a design.
Less these days than in earlier years, they may also choose fabrics, as well as create design boards with colors and textures. Fabric and bead houses in New York have Fiesta on their radar, Hill learned during her tenure.
“When my mother was Mistress of the Robes in 1947, she’d go to Solo Serve for the fabrics,” said Margaret King Stanley, the 1969 Mistress of the Robes and a local arts impresario.
The next step is revealing to the "royal" family what it is they’ll be paying for. During her year as Mistress of the Robes, Hill said all 24 families previewed their daughter’s dresses in a period of two days.
“It was intense,” said Hill, “but there were very few changes” involving dress style. “It’s important for them to feel beautiful.”
Moving from concept to reality grew easier when digital, large-format printers came into being about 10 years ago. Being able to work from a pattern was unthinkable for Stanley in 1969. She pointed to a photo of a zigzagged train in the program for her Court of Time and Space.
“The seamstresses just copied the design by eye,” she said. “There were no patterns.”
Among other differences from 1969, the Mistress of the Robes wasn’t given three years to plan for the event.
“Oh, heavens no!” Stanley said, indicating she wouldn’t have accepted a job that would have claimed three years of her life. In one year of creativity, she designed every facet of the presentation on her own, the only Mistress to have done so. She wrote the script, selected each royal member’s music, designed the costumes, and planned the onstage entertainment.
Reflecting the times and Stanley’s self-described rebelliousness, her court contained a Duchess of Psychedelic Visions and Duchess of Fantastic Predictions. The Lord High Chamberlain in 1969 – the late Robert E. “Buster” Fawcett – was “a Marvel comic come to life,” said Stanley, “complete with a large plastic helmet.”
Pages wore red tights with mylar boots and gloves, and carried ray guns in mylar holsters. Stanley herself wore a paper dress of her own design to the black-tie Queen’s Ball. The Witte Museum owns more of Stanley’s coronation gowns than of any other year.
Matching a gown to a young woman you may not personally know can be tricky, Hill said, from shape and size to personality. But for Simpson in 2017, it was like dressing a family of daughters; her own daughter, Tobin, was queen, and she had known many of the duchesses since infancy.
The identities of this year's court – and the dresses they will wear – remain a secret, though social media and gossip eke secrets into some circles. A mother close to the 2018 coronation would say only that it promises to be “spectacular” and “especially well-suited to the pageantry.”
Those not wishing to pay $25 to $75 to attend the coronation Wednesday night may witness the splendor of the Fiesta dresses atop floats in the Battle of Flowers Parade on Friday while comfortably attired in shorts and sneakers.