The fashion tradition of Ak-Sar-Ben started with the first coronation in 1895. Ak-Sar-Ben included a parade, horse racing, a ball and a coronation of the festival’s King and Queen. The coronation was the headliner of the multiple day celebration of Nebraska’s vibrant agricultural industry and the Omaha World Herald announced that it would feature “the display of gowns and jewels greater than has ever been seen here before.” The Coronation participants, selected for their family’s contributions to the region in business and community service were dressed in costumes from a Parisian fashion house. These costumes were said to be “beautiful beyond description” at a cost of $7,000. (OWH Sept 5, 1895)
“Beautiful beyond description” could have been a summary of every Ak-Sar-Ben coronation because Court Couturiers brought high fashion to the Omaha event every fall. The leading department stores in the city worked with famous fashion houses in Rome, Paris, London, Beverly Hills and New York City to dress the court. In 1932, four top French designers shared the honor, each designing 1 of the 4 dress designs for the 26 ladies in waiting. Mainbocher and Augusta Bernard each designed a Countess gown while the Houses of Vionett and Lanvin each designed a gown for the Princesses. The World-Herald declined to name the designer of the Queen’s gown that year, but they did announce that all of the gowns were “Paris inspired, but Omaha made” and then continued to describe each dress down to the smallest ruffle or rhinestone.
In 1938, Life magazine sent prized photographer, Margaret Bourke-White to cover the ball. They called it the “Prime event of the corn belt’s social season” and showed the elaborate proceedings of the court including the queen in her $500 gown from Hattie Carnegie. (10/24/38 Life)
The Life Magazine exposure is an interesting side note in Ak-Sar-Ben’s history, but historically, the Omaha World-Herald’s coverage is much more important. This annual newspaper coverage created a robust archive for costume historians in a very surprising location. It is incredible to note that examples of the work of Norman Hartnell, who worked as Queen Elizabeth II’s official couturier, and other designers at the height of their popularity like Oscar de La Renta, Hattie Carnegie or Geoffery Beene have been described in detail in the pages of the Omaha World Herald.
In 1963, the house of Sorelle Fontana, an Italian fashion house, based in Rome was hired for the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns. If you remember the unique designs Ann Lowe created for the 1961 ball, and look carefully at these Fontana dresses, you’ll notice something interesting. Fontana simplified her work by creating two basic silk “shells” and embellishing them with different motifs for the countesses and princesses. Dozens of beautiful dresses were the result, but we can’t deny that a shortcut was used—probably to make this order profitable.
The next year, Norman Hartnell took charge. The young ladies of Ak-Sar-Ben were probably thrilled to find out that their gowns were being designed by Queen Elizabeth’s couturier! And Hartnell did not disappoint. He also followed the cost-cutting tradition of using a small number of dress shell designs and embellishing them with unique motifs for each attendant’s role. The Queen gown was definitely modeled after gowns created for Queen Elizabeth II.
Ak-Sar-Ben was a little mysterious for the designers who were commissioned to dress its court. The coronation took place in a huge hall named the Coliseum, in front of an audience of 10,000. Bold and dramatic gowns were needed to make the court members stand out amongst the grand surroundings. Sometimes a court couturier needed a bit of guidance to deliver gowns with the right sense of scale and tone. “How can a famous high fashion couturier design gowns for the Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation” the World-Herald asked, “when he’s never heard of Ak-Sar-Ben? Or for that matter, has never been to Nebraska?” Oscar de la Renta’s early designs for the 1970 ball required this kind of assistance. “When we saw the sketches of the dresses,” the head of the Women’s Ball committee recalled, “I asked that the skirts be made a little fuller. He was still thinking in terms of one dress for a collection rather than a lot of them all together and we wanted it to be more costumey.”
Ak-Sar-Ben gowns were ordered from couture fashion houses until the early 1970s, so it would be difficult to give more than a snapshot of the wide range of gowns created over 75 years. Identifying the designers through each year would be possible through a lengthy review of The Omaha World Herald’s fashion articles. I *wish* I had time to take on a project like this!! And unfortunately, even the Ak-Sar-Ben organization never had a chance to put research time into their event’s fascinating fashion history!! At some point in the late 1960s, the secrecy of the designer information was lifted and profiles of the designer were included in the newspaper’s coverage leading up to the ball.
If you are feeling inspired to find out more and you have time to research these gowns, take a look at the Omaha World Herald every Fall between 1895 and 1975 and please report back 😉 . The Durham Museum is also a helpful source. They have some Ak-Sar-Ben gowns in their collection, and they have created themed Ak-Sar-Ben exhibits from time to time. As a historian who has spent a great deal of my time with Ann Lowe’s work, I’m a bit impartial when it comes to ranking the Ak-Sar-Ben gowns! I agree with something a former countess told me when she recalled that her mother, who had attended many coronations, believed that Ann Lowe’s year “was the best year as to dress and our looking like a fairytale.”
Here are a few other dresses from different eras of Ak-Sar-Ben. : This gown from 1947 is in the collection of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It was designed by Kathryn Kuhn, who also designed dresses for Hollywood stars like Sonja Henie.
This is a portrait of an Ak-Sar-Ben gown worn in the late 1950s. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art.
Closing with a bonus mystery gown that I just found on pinterest! This dress sold on Etsy and was described as a 1930s gown worn by an Ak-Sar-Ben queen…Intriguing and Glittery!!