Lit Up for Her Majesty: The ‘Iolani Palace’s Evening Tour adorned with Royal Dresses

January 09, 2017

On the most remote island in the Pacific, there is one special evening every year that many are enchanted by the royal flair long after the sun goes down. The ‘Iolani Palace, the royal residence of the Hawaiian monarch, is lit up for a special evening event. As if it became a beacon for its guests, the Palace glows in its own light and sends out soft music chords into the surrounding air. In the quiet neighborhood in downtown, Honolulu, guests arrived from all over the island, forming long lines from the entrance to the outside gate. Some donned in intricately woven hats with rare bird feathers, others wore strands of iridescent island shells on their necks. The most noticeable of all was a flat soled footwear worn by many of the guest, called “slippers”, “flip-flops” or “zoris”. The date was December 28th, 2016.

Evening tour starts from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for two days in December. Both early booking and the same day purchase are available.

To commemorate Queen Kapiʻolani’s birthday on December 31st, the ‘Iolani Palace opens up for evening tours just before the New Year. Every year, hundreds of people come to join this rare event which literally makes you feel like you're being transported back to 19th century, possibly at one of the soirées that King Kamehameha and Queen Kapiʻolani held for their honored guests. In this special tour, guests are welcomed by not only the highly-knowledgeable docents but also a music ensemble and sometimes hula in every room; just like the King and the Queen did so for their love of music.

In the Throne Room (ground floor), hula dancers in the matching velvet dress to the queen’s famous peacock feather dress, welcomed us, accompanied by the royal guards and soothing Hawaiian music.

In the King’s Study, the docent explains that the palace introduced electricity in 1887, followed by a telephone system the next year, several years before the White House did.

What made it more special this time around was the four replicas of the dresses worn by Queen Kapiʻolani and her sister-in-law, Princess Liliʻuokalani. The four dresses consisted of Kapiʻolani’s lei hulu gown and her famous peacock feather gown, and Liliʻuokalani’s lilac ostrich feather gown and black ribbon gown. These breathtaking dresses were made possible by the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace’s Ali‘i Gown Reproduction project, which was launched to help raise more understanding for the Hawaiian royalty. In each room, the dresses added another layer of glace to the ambiance, mixed with the soft musical notes wafting in the air.

 The replica of the Queen Kapiʻolani's lei hulu gown.

Commissioned was a Hawaii-based fashion and costume designer, Iris Gil Viacrusis who studied fashion and textile in Paris and whose specialty lies in Victorian and Edwardian-era clothing. For Viacrusis, his studio staff and ancient Hawaiian featherwork experts such as Momi Szirom, literally took hundreds and thousands of stitches, feathers and hours, not to mention long research and materialization, to bring back these 19th century couture dresses to life. Three of the dresses were worn when Queen Kapiʻolani and Princess Liliʻuokalani attended the Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (the fiftieth anniversary of accession) in London back in 1887. Kapiʻolani’s lei hulu gown (see the picture above), which she wore at a dinner at the Buckingham Palace, caused a little stir in British media for its luxurious usage of ‘o‘o bird’s golden feathers.  For reproducing this particular dress, goose feathers were used to replace the now extinct ‘o‘o's feathers: they were meticulously dyed, trimmed and brushed to be shaped into exactly like the originals.

The second piece of reproduction is Liliʻuokalani’s lilac feather gown (above), which was worn for the state function. The original dress (stored at the Bishop Museum), was studied very closely for the Reproduction project, and thanks to Viacrusis, the true color of this dress was revealed to be lilac, instead of ivory, for the first time.  It is now on display at the Music Room on the second floor.

 Queen Kapiolani’s famous peacock feather gown (above) was the third piece to be completed. Just to give you an image, a panel on the skirt is made with approximately four thousand feathers. As the dress comes with a panel on each side, plus those on the bodice and train, the magnitude of labor for this dress is unfathomable. The queen felt the deep blue hue of azure on velvet was suitable for her, as her name ‘Arch of Heaven’ also means azure blue in Hawaiian.

The last of four dresses, the replica of Liliʻuokalani’s black ribbon gown (above) is on display in the Blue Room (ground floor), in front of a portrait of her in the same outfit. According to the Friends of ‘Iolani Palace, there are seven gowns in total that they are planning to be reproduced through the Ali‘i Gown Reproduction project. Now completed with four, the rest must come alive with the help from further funding (see here for more information), the experts’ eyes to the details and finesse of hands, and the dreamy eyes of each visitor, both young and old. Being the only royal palace on the U.S. soil, where king and queen, and prince and princess really existed, not as a character in a tale from a remote foreign land, I hope we can continue to be spellbound by the royal objects that the restoration works of the palace brings to us.  

May every island girl’s dream come true by witnessing their princess’s dresses with their own eyes.

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