In some ways, it’s a fashion designer’s dream. In other ways, it’s a nightmare. Jill Cullinan, manager of Princess Ka’iulani Fashions, is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Bishop Museum’s collection of gowns worn by Hawai’i’s ali’i wahine. But trying to reproduce these elaborately constructed gowns of another era has not been without frustrations.
The reproductions are a collaboration between Bishop Museum and Princess Ka’iulani Fashions whose efforts culminate in a fashion show Oct. 22 in Tokyo at the Sweet Basil Dinner Theater. The Tokyo show will be produced by Kaoru and Sinchiro Tokiya owners of the made-in-Hawaii shop in Tokyo called Mu’umu’u Paradise.
The plan is to bring the show to the Islands for use at conventions and local functions, so we may get a chance to see it sometime soon. In addition, a video about the gowns will be produced by John Dobovan as a marketing piece for Bishop Museum.
But first the fashions had to be . . . well, fashioned.
As the Hawaiian monarchs began to travel widely, styles were clearly influenced by Europe. Nowhere is this more evident than in the gowns of the ali’i wahine.
Cullinan spent many hours in the museum’s archives researching just how this played out. She measured the gowns in their collection and charted details, trying to figure out construction secrets. This was especially challenging since the gowns must be touched as little as possible due to the their fragile nature (see accompanying story).
Many of the fabrics have aged nearly to the point of disintegration. This makes it difficult to determine the original colors of the gowns.
Cullinan thought a gown once worn by Queen Lili’oukalini was champagne colored, but later, after more research, learned was lilac. “So we scrapped the fabric (they had originally chosen to use),” she said.
Fabric has been one of the challenges. They just don’t make it the way they used to.
Cullinan and her mother, Joan Andersen, owner/designer of Princess Ka'iulani Fashions, looked for fabrics on the mainland, “but we couldn’t find really unique antique fabrics. We found some upholstery fabrics, Cullinan said.
When the Advertiser talked to Cullinan and Andersen, they had begun a search of the Internet for fabric sources.
The notions to be used on the gowns – buttons, fringes, tassels and laces – are also all but impossible to duplicate.
Cullinan learned by looking through a microscope at a button from Princess Ka'iulani’s gown that this delicate 1/16-inch creation was designed in the shape of a multi-faceted flower. Buttons in the 21st century are simply not made that way.
Other construction details, such as trains with twelve tiers of ruffles and sleeves that imitate multi-layered flower petals, are mysteries that Cullinan and her seamstress, Bettina Lam, had to unravel.
Even as late as a few weeks ago, the gowns were all works in progress, to be altered as fabrics and notions became available. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the gowns that will be shown in Tokyo. The show will be chronological and will feature a historical perspective on how the holoku evolved.
Queen Kamamalu’s gown, made of royal blue and chartreuse silk shantung, was purchased in England. The juliette sleeve is like one sleeve layered over another. Thirty buttons are woven of brass threads; Cullinan had to substitute brass buttons found at Kaimuki Dry Goods.
The gown is aubergine velvet while the train is silk satin, nine feet long, with rows and rows of pleated ruffles, a half-inch each. The corset-shaped bodice is shiny satin and comes to a point; the points are silk stantung. Cullinan had to hand-cover buttons to anchor the skirt’s shearing. The skirt has four satin ribbons up the front, and matching the ribbon and velvet colors has been difficult.
Perhaps the most famous queen’s gown in the Islands is the peacock gown of Queen Kapi’olani. It was designed by a Hawaiian named Lono and made by B. Altman in New York for Queen Kapi’olani to wear to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in London in 1887. The dress is made of azure blue velvet with a 10-foot train and is embellished with peacock feathers that Cullinan obtained in Los Angeles.
Princess Ruth Ke’elikolani
Although she was known to have preferred Hawaiian Clothing, Princess Ruth did have her portrait taken (looking uncomfortable) in a black faille and satin dress now housed at Bishop Museum. The trim was the challenge here. It is five inches long.
Couture details are evident in the gown worn by Princess Ka'iulani when she was at school in England. Rhinestones, pearls and beading were sewn onto net before being applied to fabric. Corduroy was sewn into the hem to add weight so it would drape gracefully.
The double sleeves are gathered for a ruched (like soft pleating) look. The color was deceptive: The gown was now yellow, but was originally white.
The queen wore this gown to close parliament in 1891 or 1892, “but it doesn’t seem like a serious dress,” Cullinan said. It is embellished with ostrich feathers. The gown is a heavy brushed satin in lavender with Battenburg lace down the front. “we had to use a table runner, but eventually I’m hopeful we’ll find the right lace. Wherever I go, I’ll be looking,” Cullinan said a few weeks ago.
Princess Ka'iulani Fashions hopes to eventually recreate 30 to 40 gowns. The company wants to find sponsors to pay for the replicated gowns, which would then become part of the museum’s permanent collection.
A portion of the proceeds from the Tokyo show will be donated by the Tokiyas to the museum’s permanent collection. The Japan hula community will also give a gift.
Said museum spokesman Kula Above: “The museum hopes to partner with other companies to tell the story of Hawaii in an engaging manner, to care for the na mea makamae (‘the precious things’).”