When the Pasadena Museum of History began piecing together its “Royals of Pasadena” exhibit, curators felt they were on a bit of a fishing expedition, cautiously dipping into a century of archives that revealed bits and pieces of former royals, as well as years reflecting war, celebration and social change.
They reached out to all the former royals they could locate, asking for memorabilia and photos.
In return, they received a flood of loaned items and, more importantly, memories that tied all the pieces together. More than 70 former queens and princesses responded to the outreach, many personally bringing back the items to the museum.
The result has been a showcase celebrating 100 years of the Rose Queen and Royal Court tradition, making the gallery walls practically talk.
“We got a tremendous outpouring of support and loans,” said Laura Verlaque, Pasadena Museum of History director of collections. “We couldn’t even take everything, but we got the right amount of material that allowed us to craft their story. We wanted to have representation across the different decades, show the different fashions and how they reflected the times.”
The thread pulling the exhibit together is fashion and elegance, with coronation gowns of past royals on display, including crowns, accessories and daywear, “from the sleek satin gowns of the 1940s to the tulle confections of William Cahill in the 1950s and 60s, and the modern-day glamour of Tadashi Shoji,” the museum pens in its description.
True-to-life mannequins display the gowns, beginning with that of 1940 Rose Queen Margaret Huntley Main, who at age 96 is the oldest surviving queen.
“It’s a history of American women and our changing ideas of beauty and womanhood and how that is represented by the styles,” Verlaque said.
The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 11, captures the court’s fairytale magic of another time and another place, mixed with humorous analogies recounted by the framed, accompanying descriptions that were told by some of the royals themselves.
One clipping, from a trove of letters known as the “Broadway Papers” archive, recounts the sentiment of a 1906 queen, when many years later she is asked to respond to a survey the Tournament of Roses organization sent out, asking how they are using their former Royal Court attire.
Back in 1906, Elsie Armitage wrote, she was given $5 to buy her own outfit. In a letter to an old friend, she thanks her for letting her borrow a white silk skirt, noting she combined it with a white blouse her mother had made her the year before, and that she used the $5 to pay for “imitation white silk” for a cape with gold trim.
“Aunt Birdie did my hair. My brother Mort took my picture and then Uncle Fred called a cab to take me down to the parade … he never tired afterward of chiding me about how it cost him $2 to ride with the queen. Thus ended my one-day reign.”
That gem, Verlaque notes, “may have just been serendipity; found randomly in old papers.”
The volunteer curators, who found such treasures, put in more than 1200 hours over nearly nine months to comb through archives from the museum, the Tournament of Roses and Pasadena library, successfully organizing the comprehensive tale of elegance.
“We had to find the common thread to pull all this together,” said exhibit curator Elissa De Angelo, who together with fellow curator Suzanne Ehrmann, gave a recent tour of the double gallery exhibit.
The entire curator team often gives private tours upon request.
De Angelo and Ehrmann, a proper storytelling duo, began at the beginning, often finishing each other’s sentences and interjecting anecdotes to go with the nuts and bolts of the items on display.
As promised, they drew the timeline around the Tournament of Roses Royal Court, beginning with the first photos of the tradition, begun in 1890 by the Valley Hunt Club to bring visitors and tourists to Pasadena from back east. The club decorated their horse-drawn carts with flowers grown in their own gardens and created a parade, which was taken over by the TOR some five years later when it had grown out of proportion, attracting about 50,000 people.
From that time on, until the process was formalized in the 1930s, “the only consistency was inconsistency,” De Angelo said, noting that some years there was a queen, sometimes not, sometimes a king, and sometimes only a royal court.
The early years were full of fantasy themes, with photos showing several royals in fairy costumes, and yet another with a crown of seashells. “That really confused us, until we were able to piece it together with the grand marshal that year and the theme that was the ‘Tale of the High Seas’,” she said.
De Angelo spent hours recreating the dresses on the mannequins to exact measurements, doing such a good job that “If you could put heads on them and say ‘walk’ they would,” Ehrmann murmured, browsing over the gallery of glittering attire.
Ehrmann spent hours with the former royals who brought their keepsakes to the museum, interviewing many to get the backstory of each piece.
“Meeting the women and hearing how being on the court really changed their lives, seeing the transformation that they talked about, it really made this exhibit come alive for me. It gave us a depth of understanding,” Ehrmann said.
They gave some details of those encounters, some of which were very emotional. Former 1940 queen Margaret Huntley came to see her floor-length white silk gown on display, tearing up at the memories it brought back. She told the curators the story behind her dress; it was called the “Camelot gown,” and it was made by a well-known, local seamstress named Margery Mudget. There had been an intense rivalry that year by the TOR president with the previous president, and he wanted the dress to be especially memorable. She proudly told them of its uniqueness, noting there hasn’t been such a dress since.
When she saw it in person, Ehrmann recounted, Huntley was taken aback at its discoloration — real silk, when exposed to the elements, yellows and fades over time. “That was bright gold!” she remarked on the silk braided trim.
Other dresses and photos brought pause, due to the year they represented. The 1940s dresses during World War II were solemn, reflecting austere styles in luxury fabrics, but with no trim, beading or details. The year D-Day hit, the parade was canceled at the last minute, and there is a photo displayed of the royals in a car driving down an empty street surrounded by empty bleachers.
One of the former royals said the zippers on dresses from those years were all on the side, since no men were around to unzip them. Another little-known fact: From 1935 to 1965, it was mandatory for all women enrolled in public high schools to apply to the Royal Court as part of their physical education class. After 1965, the application was made voluntary, and opened to the Greater Pasadena area.
Of course, there were some items that didn’t make the cut, due to condition and space within the display cases, one from an article in the L.A. Herald Express newspaper introducing the 1957 Queen Trudy Wood, with hair: light brown; eyes: hazel; bust 34, waist 25, hips 36.
“There were other photos showing the girls pulling something out of the oven or serving tea, and well, those were just the times. They were expected to get married and stay at home,” De Angelo noted, with Ehrmann interjecting “And have children!”
Other dresses resulted in last minute changes. The 1954 dress, an enormous blush pink confection with seven layers of petticoats and crinoline, and with a hoop skirt so large she had to ride alone in her own cab; there was no room for the escort.
All the decades of fashion line the gallery walls, from the lime green pantsuits daywear of the 1970s to the enormous, squared-off shoulders of the 1980s.
One can almost imagine the former royals, many of whom came for the museum’s grand opening, and who have retained their royal demeanor and training, Ehrmann recounted, laughing, when she asked them for a group photo.
“It was incredible, they all lined up according to size, put their feet the right way and boom! Photo perfect.”
The Royals of Pasadena is open to the public through Feb. 11 and costs $7 for general admission, $6 for students and seniors; members receive free admission for two and children under 12 are free. The Pasadena Museum of History is located at 470 W. Walnut St.