Fit for a queenGet a roomful of models and clothes together and what you'll hear and see are a lot of chatter and movement. So it's startlingly quiet during a fitting session at Ray Sasaki's home, where the mood is reverential, the models' steps timid, deliberate, as if they were schoolgirls working on their posture by balancing a book on their heads.
The gowns of Hawaiian royalty
bring history to life
By Nadine Kam
"Don't be afraid of the garments," Sasaki instructs, as Lea Pili steps forward in a black gown. "Model it like you own it. You are the queen."
Pili straightens her back further and tilts her head back slightly to raise her chin and in that moment, she seems to be channeling the spirit of Queen Lili'uokalani.
The gown is a reproduction of one worn by the queen as recreated by the late designer, historian and collector Richard Goodwin, who spent 40 years researching the garments of Hawaii's monarchs. Originally from England, he was a designer for Kamehameha Garments in the 1940s and '50s, and while here, became interested in Hawaiian fashion of the past.
His collection will be on view Sunday at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel Monarch Room, during a fashion show presented by the Hawaii Chapter of World Wings International Inc.
When Goodwin passed away, the collection of monarchy-era designs was placed in the care of ADR Productions and its founder, Sasaki, who didn't quite know what to do with the collection beyond locking it in a bank vault.
"I had heard about the collection when I was in high school and saw it once when it was shown at the opening of the Blaisdell Concert Hall, that's when the Blaisdell was still the H.I.C. So when it came to us, I knew the value of the collection, and, being very young and ambitious, I saw it as a wonderful monetary thing. Now I realize it's the historical value that is all-important. It's a wonderful visual history of Hawaii."
Knowledge of Lili'uokalani's status leads us to imagine a large, imposing figure. But the queen was actually slight by today's standards. Pili stands a mere 5 feet tall and the Lili'uokalani gown, its skirt rising and falling like a wave with the sway of the grand hoop beneath it, fits her perfectly.
For Lei Gould, in a cream and eggshell-colored eyelet gown, the fit is not as close. "I tell you, I feel real skinny compared to Queen Kapiolani," she says.
Princess Ka'iulani, who looks so statuesque in her portraits, was a mere 5-foot-3, but carried herself with a grace borne of her formal education in Europe.
This is the kind of intimate connection that can bring life to histories dully recited in textbooks. It's one thing to read of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy; it's another to picture the tiny Lili'uokalani standing up to an army or Ka'iulani rushing home from London to make a final plea for her people's sovereignty.
"This has been a real lesson in Hawaiian history for me," said Sasaki, who grew up in '50s Hawaii, when post-war American patriotism was the sentiment of the day and schools emphasized assimilation and mastery of standard English.
"Hawaiian went underground," Sasaki said. "There was no hula, no study of history, and use of the language was discouraged. I have friends who told me they were scolded for speaking Hawaiian.
"There is so much of this world that's been lost. That's why I would eventually like to take this collection into the high schools. I think students would retain more if they could see a visual presentation of Hawaii's people and heritage."
It would make sense to a lot of fashion groupies to know that the monarchs craved luxury, getting most of their clothes made in Europe by such venerated establishments as Chanel and Cartier. Lili'uokalani owned a diamond necklace by Cartier, which Sasaki believes is now housed in London's Museum of Mankind. Goodwin had a copy of it made by Cartier, though out of rhinestones.
And talk about suffering for fashion, Hawaii's royals were perfectly willing to don bustles, petticoats, pantaloons and high-necked, long-sleeved dresses to look good.
While some of the gowns worn by Ka'iulani, Princess Miriam Likelike and Princess Kalama are authentic, Goodwin reproduced many of the pieces using portraits as guides. These were crafted in Europe of fine period fabric and materials. In some cases where the original gowns had deteriorated, original lace and crochet details were transferred to the reproductions.
Complementing the garments are original accessories such as fans, tortoiseshell combs, beaded handbags, and, most unusual, a mirrored parasol handle belonging to Queen Kalama, which allowed her to eye her subjects, Sasaki said.
"She was real mischievous, and at a time people could look at royalty, but royalty could not look at people, she could tilt the handle to get a peek. She was a real charmer.
"I don't profess to know everything about the era, and I don't have a drop of Hawaiian blood in me," says Sasaki -- who is retired and has passed the collection on to his successor Ryan Keola Brown -- "but I feel moved when I narrate the show. I don't know if it's sadness. I know part of it is nostalgia, feeling the loss of an era gone by."
A luncheon and fashion show, with premiere of Mamo Howell Fall 2001 line:
200 Years of Hawaii:
The Monarchy Gown and
When: Noon Sunday
Place: Royal Hawaiian Hotel
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