Friday, February 18, 2011

Southern Belles of Laredo

My parents have collected National Geographic issues for a very long time. They got a first subscription to the magazine as a present when they got married and have renewed is ever since. Whenever I visit, I love to flip through the latest ones that are lying around the main floor (the rest I classified for them a couple of years back, in the downstairs library). That is how I one day learned of Laredo's Martha Washington Pageant and their impressive gowns.

Once upon a time in Laredo was written by Mimi Swartz, Photographed by Penny De Los Santos, and published in the November 2006 edition of National Geographic. It presents Laredo in all its reality, with its lavish pageant and contrasting poverty. Although it makes is sad to learn of a place set in the modern world where the average income is 11,000$ (US) a year, and where the rich got richer and the poor are meant to be poor, I will focus on the amazing dresses the “Marthas” wear on their debut night.

Ready to Sparkle, Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden, Visions of Grandeur, AAA Texas Journey, February 2009

Laredo's Martha Washington Society was founded in 1939, for the ladies of the old families of Laredo. The Martha Washington pageant is their version of a debutante ball, but whereas Northern Debs wear white dresses and long gloves, “Marthas” wear “colonial” or Southern Belle dresses (many article talk of "typical 18th century" dresses, but we both know that is wrong) so adorned with beading, embroidery and ruffles, they can weight up to 80 pounds and cost 30,000$! (And you though the Say Yes to the Dress brides with their 10,000$ dresses were crazy! – Or is that just me?)

Hand Beading of a dress

There are some options for “Marthas” to cut down on the price of their dresses. One is to participate in the hand embroidery and beading of the dress they helped design. Another is to “recycle” the dress worn by their mother or grand-mother by adding more ruffles, beads, sequins and lace.

Hoop Dreams, Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, Once Upon a Time in Laredo, National Geographic, November 2006

“Marthas” must learn to walk, dance and curtsy in these dresses; they practice with their partners, wearing only their corsets and hoop skirts, before adding the weight of the gown. In a time when all girls grow up wearing jeans and tee-shirts, becoming a princess might seem like hard work!

Martha & George Washington

The ball is always held on a Friday. Influential members of society are chosen to play the parts of Martha and George Washington. They are introduced first, and then followed by the “Marthas” and their escort. Each plays a character contemporary to the President, and as they are presented to the public, their “pedigree” is announced: how long has the family been established, whether their grandfather ever played George Washington or their mother was ever a “Martha”, if they were once and “abrazo” child in a local ceremony of friendship where children are sent across the international bridge to embrace a child from the other side of the frontier, that sort of thing. They are expected to bow down very low turning their heads to the side and making their ear parallel to the floor, all the while balancing the curls piled on top of their heads.

Sparkling Splendor, Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, Once Upon a Time in Laredo, National Geographic, November 2006

Once everyone has been presented, then the ball can begin. Finally, months of practice are put to the test as the “Marthas” dance the night away with their escort.

Pageantry on Parade, Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, Once Upon a Time in Laredo, National Geographic, November 2006

Contrary to a wedding dress, the “Marthas” get to wear their dresses again the next day, when each one takes place wrapped in furs on their own personal float, for a parade in honour of the first president.

The Right Touch, Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, Once Upon a Time in Laredo, National Geographic, November 2006

You might wonder who makes these amazing dresses; the answer is Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez. For over 30 years, she has designed with passion the fabulous gowns that gives this pageant it’s character. "The girls are born, and the mothers call me from the hospital," Linda says. To the elite, she is one of the most important woman in town. "I want my daughter to steal the show," one mother told Linda, and so she creates intricate and beautiful dresses for the "Marthas". "They think they're getting what they want," says Linda, "but I lead them to what I think is right."

In the Spotlight, Photograph by Penny De Los Santos, Once Upon a Time in Laredo, National Geographic, November 2006

So tonight, have a thought for these young girls who will make their debuts in Laredo’s society, not because they need it to advance in life – they all come from wealthy families and attend Ivy league schools – but because deep down inside, all little girls want to be a princess for one night.

For more beautiful pictures of these gowns, visit the following links:

Dedicated to Nancy-Raven and her current passion for Southern Belle costumes.