In February 1969, ABC News science editor Jules Bergman offered a prediction based on the success of the Apollo 9 liftoff he’d just witnessed: “America stands an excellent chance of landing men on the moon by this summer.”
Bergman was correct, of course, foreshadowing the moon landing of NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 21 of that year. In the runup to America’s victory in the space race, San Antonians had responded with appropriate excitement.
Fifty years later, the Witte Museum’s Fiesta 1969: Blast from the Past exhibition travels back in time to capture the moment when space travel became a reality.
Fiesta 1969 pays tribute to the original coronation dresses of noted clothier Margaret King Stanley, themed as “The Court of Time and Space,” in brightly-hued velvets, gold lamé, silver mylar, and other metallic cloth. The dresses are augmented with artifacts and footage from the mod-minded period, including Bergman’s black-and-white television report.
As the stuff of science fiction became science fact, Order of the Alamo Coronation Chair Robert Morris appointed Stanley as Mistress of the Robes for the 1969 Battle of Flowers parade and ball. The non-traditional Stanley took the grand costumery to a whole new level, warranting the unusual step of devoting an annual Witte Fiesta coronation exhibition to a single year’s design.
“She was extraordinary,” said Marise McDermott, Witte president and CEO, of Stanley. “She’s a true visionary.”
Chief Curator Amy Fulkerson agreed, citing Stanley’s bold, forward-looking approach to what is normally the highly traditional, staid business of dressing Fiesta royalty. “To shift it down to an A-line dress was radical for the Order of the Alamo,” she said of Stanley’s sleek silhouettes for the various dresses of the duchesses, princess, and queen.
Stanley’s time-and-space focus “was a theme that no one had ever seen before,” she said. “It was so perfectly aligned to what was happening in that moment. … I think it reflects just how much everyone within the community was shaped by this moment. We were about to put a man on the moon, and that was big.”
As a yearlong, full-time volunteer, Stanley not only led the Court’s costume design, but also chose the music for the coronation celebration, and wrote the script read by Robert Fawcett Jr., Intergalactic Scholar and Lord High Chamberlain, for the coronation ceremony.
Throughout the history of the Universe, man has been fascinated with the Heavens, she wrote, continuing: His myths, his music, and his art – indeed his whole being – have been inspired by the stars. Let us search through Time and Space to discover what was in the skies that so compelled mankind.
Her fascination with space compelled Stanley’s deep research, which she used to inform her inventive costume designs. Overall, Fulkerson said, “they were looking at, over time, what are the different ways that we have looked up at the night sky and been inspired.”
The arrow designs of the Duchess of Fabulous Fireworks dress compare the earthbound explosives to actual rockets, “and this dream of breaking the bounds of gravity” that had eventually been realized with NASA’s Mercury program, Fulkerson said.
The list of royal titles reveals Stanley’s research and eclectic approach: Duchess of Adventurous Astronauts, Duchess of the Starry Night (inspired by the famous Van Gogh painting), Duchess of the Voodoo Moon, Duchess of the First Flight, Duchess of the Lunar Landscape, Duchess of Frozen Space, Duchess of Spinning Satellites, Duchess of Radar Waves, Duchess of Creation, Duchess of the Unexplored Universe.
All are visible in a preserved copy of 16-millimeter film taken at the 1969 Battle of Flowers parade, led by San Antonio native and astronaut David Randolph Scott, who had returned from leading the Apollo 9 February space shot to lead the April parade. The parade footage is popular with visitors to the gallery, Fulkerson said, some of whom witnessed the original event.
Some tradition-minded San Antonians at the time considered her work with illusion necklines and sheer material too risqué, Stanley said. The parents of the 17-year-old Duchess of Solar Energy vetoed her use of strategically placed clear cellophane panels on the dress, deeming the concept inappropriately revealing.
The title Duchess of Psychedelic Visions and her intensely-colored dress also raised eyebrows, Stanley said, but was done in tribute to Peter Max, the popular artist whose visions also advertised Campbell’s Soup, 7 Up, and other cultural mainstays.
And the eccentrically named Duchess of Space Flowers reveals Stanley’s still-searching mind. Asked now what the name refers to, the 89-year-old said, “Well, we hope we’re gonna find something in this outer space world that we haven’t yet visited. I’m still waiting!”
Stanley’s scripted questions of 1969 – What questions did the Cosmos ask man and where did the answers lead him? When he first searched with his eyes, then the telescope and finally in rockets trailing fire, what did man seek? – evoke the spirit of the age. She hopes the promised return to space exploration will lead to a new space age.
“I was very excited when I started reading the New York Times and the local papers, and was amazed at how much I found” related to the International Space Station and other recent developments.
“It’s a recurring theme now. We’re going to explore the Moon again, and Mars. It kinda puts me back where I was in ’69,” she said.
Fiesta 1969: Blast from the Past is on view now through July 28 in the second-floor rotating exhibitions gallery of the Witte Museum, accessible with regular admission.