The Wedding Dress Story
Today, September 15, 2017, I received the best news of my life. A piece of my work that is very special to me will go on display at a major museum in the United States, soon for all to enjoy.
I have to tell it from the beginning, this is my story of a dress I created a long time ago in 1994. I call it the “Raven Takes the World, a Haida wedding dress. I began my career as a fashion designer in 1988 after graduating from a small design school in Vancouver BC.
It was a time of new beginnings and sad endings for me, as my mother Eleanor June Grant-Eikemo had passed that same year. Her passing was life-changing for me as I was only 33 years old and embarking on a new career. One does not really know until the loss of a mother how this affects life going forward.
In my grief, I decided to create a collection of work based on what I had designed in school. I was driven to work hard on my newfound vision. I decided to do 29 pieces, make them one at a time, in two color schemes. By the end of 1989, I had a 55 piece collection to show. My career was launched. My mother never had a chance to see my work. She died on June 5, 1988.
In 1994, while in the midst of a tumultuous divorce, and at the same time, setting up a new storefront of my own designs, hiring new staff, and creating collections to fill the store, I was in the fight of my life to maintain that vision I had started 5 years previously. Starting a store in a recession did nothing to squash my vision, I moved forward with fierce determination. I had friends and new staff, who embraced my vision with me. We opened the store in July 1994, deeply in debt, but positive we would make it. The media coverage was like a big wave that just kept hitting my shoreline; it was great. Yet the stress and the bills of the retail storefront were overwhelming. I didn’t know how I was going to make it, I was in flight and fight mode every single day.
I had a staff of six, rent to pay for my store, and a production studio, and all the minutia and details that go into making us look successful. No one knew I was swimming for my life.
One night I had a dream about my mother. She was so beautiful and so very serene. She told me she was very worried about me, and she could see what I was doing. She said, “I want you to make me a wedding dress because I never had one. If you do this I know you will be alright.” Her voice and her request were so clear. I woke up and immediately went to my desk to sketch out the “Haida wedding dress”, for her. That morning I took the sketch to my production manager, Valerie. I told her about the dream, and how I must make this dress. She grabbed the sketch from my hands and said, “Dorothy I am going to start making this pattern and I’m going to oversee this and sew it myself.”
Promptly, I did the artwork, inspired by this dream, and I called it “Raven Takes the World”, Raven is featured with human hands, grasping a circular human face representing a young raven. It symbolizes the transition I was going through.
The dress was made of hand tanned white deerskin, and the artwork was silk screened on the central front bodice of the tiered layered fringed dress. The three layers of fringe were painted with a blue border and hand cut and the top border bodice was beaded with a mother of pearl and blue glass beads. With the theme of the blue and white, I knew there had to be a headdress made of blue and white Dentalium shells and blue glass beads. I had studied many native garments from earlier centuries for years, so I knew what the headdress should look like. Some might say it was borrowed from a coast Salish wedding picture of a native bride in a similar headdress, and yes, it was inspired by that photograph, but I had to make it more modern and Haida in style. I asked my dear friend, Marianne Jones, who was skilled in beading, to make the piece from that photograph and use the shells and beads that I provided for her. She went to work and made it, and had it cascading down a bride’s back in several tiers of beads and shell work. It was gorgeous!
We made shoes with remnants of the deerskin, and it was debuted in a fashion show in Vancouver for a large conference audience in 1995.
I asked my friend, “How do I honor my mother with the debut of this dress as the model does not have a groom to go with her?” She said, “Why not make it a new ceremony instead? Use a basket of eagle down and have the bride walk to the end of the runway with this special basket and open it and blow it into the audience. We will use very quiet and provocative Haida music.” As the model walked the runway, with a mysterious something in her hand you could hear the audible gasps as she opened the basket and blew the feather down onto the guests.
From that time on we showed the dress in the same manner at every fashion show while giving tribute to my mother. And every time that dress hit the runway, tears filled my eyes. Here was an unconventional wedding dress that I was showing in an unconventional way, in a ceremony. It was like she was there telling me to never forget my role, my vision, and my talent.
At some point, the dress was going to get weary-worn, and I didn’t want that to happen so I retired the dress in the year 2001 to my closet. I was my hope that it would find a good home in a museum one day.
My designing life continued after the close of the Sinclair Centre store in 2000 and the opening of two new stores over the next 11 years.
17 years later, a curator from NMAI in New York City, asked me to be in a group show for the Native Fashion Now exhibit. They invited three other designers to show and asked if I would close the show with a wedding dress. I think she knew I had this piece in my closet from a conversation years earlier so I asked her, “How did you know I had one in my closet?” She said, “I have a very good memory, Dorothy and I remember you had said you created a wedding dress and it’s stored in your closet.”
Native Fashion Now is a very important show for us as native fashion designers. It was the first show if its kind that focused on native fashion and how it has evolved over the last 40 years, and my work was central to the show.
I felt it was important to bring out the dress from my closet!.
The museum generously paid for a model of my choice to come to New York with me. We had to alter the dress and do a few fittings to get it just right.
On April 19, 2017, at the Native Design Today show, the Raven Takes the World Haida Wedding Dress was on the runway again. It was modeled by Sienna Isberg- Richardson from Skidegate, BC. And she was stunning looking with a natural beauty. As I watch from the side of the runway, I had the same feelings of pride and mixed emotions because I knew this would be the last time I saw it on a living body on the runway.
The show was filmed live on the New York Times Live site in real-time. A woman told me in an email that you could hear the audible gasps as the model walked down the runway and opened up the spruce root basket, woven by my Aunt Vesta Johnson, to blow the eagle down into the audience. After a long moment of silence, she was escorted off the runway one last time.
As I gathered all my models together to go to the after-show reception for invited VIP guests, we were giddy in the elevator all the way down. There is always a really natural high after a show is over because the models are not so nervous and we did an excellent job. It was time to have a glass of wine and relax.
When we entered the room the paparazzi gathered around us and we posed for many photos.
My dear friends there congratulated me about the show. I told one that I would love to see the dress go to a museum collection someday.
Cynthia Chavez Lamar, the director of acquisitions for NMAI in Maryland came directly over to me and she said, “I overheard your conversation about selling the wedding dress. Please contact me, we are very interested.” She handed me her card.
I, of course, was thrilled and said that, yes, I would put something in writing and send it to her when I got home.
I felt a dream was coming true, not just of my mother, but of what I visualized as the final home for the wedding dress.
In May I submitted a portfolio of pictures of all three pieces, the dress, the headdress, and the beaded shoes. I also gifted the “Eagle Gala Dress”, which was in the Native Fashion Now Show as part of my proposal to NMAI.
The curatorial staff of NMAI met over my proposal and told me that the decision was 100 percent approved by all staff.
I had brought to the negotiation a patron who told me in New York City that she would like to contribute 20% for the sale of the pieces to the museum and to let her know the price. We talked at great length about the price and I said I was very reluctant to name a sum until I felt it was the right price. My patron, Ann Roberts Rockefeller, said, “Why don’t you ask your mother? She came to you in your dreams she will come to you with an answer.” I told her that was a great idea.
And of course numbers bounced around my head, but only one number stuck. So that was it. It was put in writing. The proposal was sent via email.
What was interesting about my client, Ann Roberts Rockefeller, is that she made her donation on the condition that the New York Board would double her donation. And they did unanimously!
I got the news September 15, 2017, via email from a staff member taking care of the red tape at the Smithsonian, that it was all confirmed and it was a done deal! I was stunned and elated. A journey had come to an end.
I have a hard time putting into words the emotions that I felt after all this time, from the dream request from my mother to the many fashion shows with the dress to the time it sat in my closet, to hitting the runway in New York, to the completion of this sale. Where did all the time go? Perhaps in the spirit world, my mother was there watching over me, saying,
“NOW…. I KNOW YOU ARE ALL-RIGHT”.
It is my truth that she has always been there, She inspired this dress, as I navigated the difficult world of fashion and in my aloneness, she has been a central core figure there with me. She was “RAVEN BRINGING LIGHT TO THE WORLD”.
Dedicated to my mother, Eleanor June Morrison-Grant-Eikemo, June 05, 1988.