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How to dress like a Fiestero
A sartorial challenge that's worth the search.

Santa Barbara City Councilman Gil Garcia
and his wife, Old Spanish Days board member
Marti Correa de Garcia, went south of the
border for their Fiesta look.

Photo credit: Steve Malone


iesta is more than parades, dancers, food, and cascarones.

It's Santa Barbara's longest-running costume party.

Fiesta is everyone's chance to indulge their deepest fantasies. Think Halloween – with a theme. Become an 18th century señorita. A dashing vaquero. An Aztec goddess. An elegant don. A frontier soldier.

Exemplifying the city's inherent playfulness, costumes can transport the wearer into another time and person, making them players in the Fiesta scene, not mere spectators.

"It's sort of acting," said Santa Barbaran Margarita Villa, a descendant of Presidio pioneers. "It makes you feel you're getting into the spirit of things. You become part of it."

There are also practical benefits. Some places, like the Downtown Organization's traditional Wednesday breakfast, give free eats for people showing up in costume.

Except for parade participants, dancers and dignitaries, costumes seem to have become a less integral part of Fiesta for younger generations. It may be partly intimidation – people scared off or turned off by what was once proclaimed "proper" Old Spanish Days attire.

Also, stay-at-home seamstresses who sewed on skirt ruffles or transformed a bathrobe into a bolero jacket – "It's easy," blithely promised one 1950s News-Press article – are becoming an endangered species. People rushing from work don't have time or energy to pile on layers of ruffles.

Inventiveness is a key today. Remember early Santa Barbara saw a wealth of wonderful characters: Indians, explorers, mission padres, soldiers, pirates, Yankee sailors, mountain men. In other words, everyone wasn't the elegant De la Guerras; it's OK to break tradition, be creative, have fun – which was the idea behind fiestas, anyway.

Party finery, however, remains the symbol of Fiesta attire.

To build her Fiesta wardrobe, Mary Kallusky, whose husband George was El Presidente in 1983, had a plan: "I used to buy one dress a year."

She found dresses in cities throughout Mexico as well as acquiring some locally from stores and acquaintances. She also had area seamstresses and tailors alter American garb into Spanish-style costumes for herself and her husband. Fortunately, the lifespan of Fiesta dresses is limitless.

Today, her collection reflects diverse regions of Mexico. There are two elegant and colorful gowns from Guadalajara, one of which she wore for the opening La Misa del Presidente at the Mission.

"You could use it at a formal party," suggested her friend Cuca Hidalgo, a native of Durango, Mexico, who is an authority on Mexican dresses and whose husband Richard was Fiesta El Presidente in 1979.

Kallusky displayed an exquisite white cotton and lace campesina dress she wore in the parade and to El Presidente's party.

One of the most breathtaking costumes was a black velveteen dress decorated with hand-sewn gold, red and green sequins in the shape of the Aztec symbol: an eagle perched on a cactus carrying a snake in its mouth. Indian dancers are also depicted in colorful sequins.

"This is my favorite of all," said Kallusky, who found the dress in Santa Barbara. "I bought it from a lady who didn't want it. She got it from Tijuana."

"It's a gorgeous dress," she said, though with yards of sequins on the full skirt prone to snagging, "You have to be careful where you wear it. You can't be around people." She wore it to a Mayor's Party at Earl Warren Showgrounds, she recalled.

In Santa Barbara summertime, which often swings from hot days to chilly nights, weather becomes a key factor in choosing what to wear to which events, said Kallusky. She picks cool, lightweight dresses for daytime, with warmer garb after the sun goes down.

As the wife of El Presidente, she said, "We had so many functions, I changed (clothes) two or three times a day."

In contrast to the elaborate Aztec-themed dress is a simple white cotton shift-like dress from Yucatan with a loose top called a huilpil, worn by Mayan women.

"It's very cool, very practical," said Hidalgo.

"It's just straight, very flattering," said Kallusky, noting the dress style is available many places. She found hers on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

She also displayed dresses with colorfully embroidered flowers from Chiapas (she wore one to the Celebraciön de los Dignatarios at the Zoo), and a simple red outfit from Merida, a favorite she wore to a recent El Presidente's party.
There are also self-made costumes.

"I'm very fortunate to have wonderful friends who put costumes together," said Kallusky.

Hidalgo made her own Durango-style dress she wore to the parade and parties when her husband was El Presidente. "I love to get dressed up," she said. "I enjoy the four or five days of Fiesta – I wish it were more."

For men, a simple start to becoming a Fiestero is "a shirt with a vest, a red sash, a hat, and a badge, and they're ready to go," Kallusky said. Team them with muslin pants and a serape.

A pleated shirt, perhaps worn with a scarf, is popular men's wear. Old suits or tuxedos may be tailored into Spanish costumes with trouser seams slit and inset with colorful fabric.

Costumes need not be fancy, Villa noted.

"The simplest costume is a long peasant skirt and a white peasant blouse," she said. "Put a sash around the middle." For men, it's the same: white shirt, dark pants, a sash Ñ usually red or green – at the waist.

Mantillas may be made from a piece of lace, though purists note that in early days mantillas were usually worn only as a head covering at Mass.

Sally Reagan, owner of the Nimble Thimble in Santa Barbara, knows all about Fiesta dresses. This year she made 76 flamenco dresses for dancers with the Linda Vega Dance Studio. Reagan is making dresses for the Junior and Senior Spirits of Fiesta as well as for several groups and solo dancers.

"We start with sketches," she said. "Most of them know what they want." Dresses are "every color you can think of." Tiny girls' dresses go to mid-calf, but most older girls wear ankle length, she said. An advanced group of dancers will wear dresses with trains.

"All the dresses have ruffles," said Reagan, who makes her own patterns from Vega's designs. Trims include lace and ribbons – "whatever they want."

Reagan, whose year-round job is doing custom clothing and alterations (she sews flamenco all year) started making Fiesta dresses four years ago. Because of the large numbers of dancers' dresses she's making this year, she's doing no private Fiesta costumes. "This starts in February," she said. "It's all I do."

When does she expect to finish the last of the 76 dresses?

She laughed. "Probably opening day at the Mission."

Where to find "The Look"

The following are among the people and businesses offering Fiesta costumes and accessories for sale:

Autumn's Uptown, 1429 State St., 965-5215:

New and used clothing, flamenco dresses, vintage velvet painted skirts, some hats, clothing that is adaptable to Fiesta costumes, a couple of hand-knotted ribbon shawls. Good quality, but not cheap.

Cruz Dance & Entertainment Studio, 964-1590:

Men's women's and children's costume rental by appointment only.

Maria Sanchez, 964-4961:

Sells Mexican Fiesta clothing for men, women and children; has flamenco dresses for children; Mexican wedding shirts (guayaberas) for men; also has hats, huaraches, serapes, ponchos and paper flowers.

Josephine Palomino, 684-4499:

Sews Fiesta outfits for men, women and children.

Gloria Macartney, 898-1625:

Sews Fiesta outfits for girls, specializes in flamenco dresses, but will do other styles. Has some ready made and does custom work.

Veronica's Craft Supply, 133 E. Carrillo St., 564-7000:

Stocks pre-made Fiesta dresses for girls.

Linen Boutique, 816 State St., 962-4007:

Castanettes and a wide selection of fans.

Olvera Street in Los Angeles:

Numerous shops with a wide selection of Mexican clothing for men, women and children.

Fiesta History

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