All About That Dress: A History of Cornyation Fashion

For the last three years, I’ve been working on a book about the history of our most beloved Fiesta event, Cornyation. I’m pleased to report that the book will be published in March 2017 by Trinity University Press, and it will include more than 100 pictures of Cornyation over the years. Over the course of doing this project, I’ve learned a lot about fashion. Many San Antonians are familiar with the current version of the Cornyation show, the campy sketch comedy that pokes fun at anyone and everything. What few people understand is the centrality of the woman at the center of each skit — the duchess, empress or queen — to the history of the show.

Cornyation began as a satire of the debutante pageantry of the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo. The show started in 1951 as a fundraiser for the San Antonio Little Theatre (SALT), and was performed for over a decade at the Arneson River Theatre as part of a Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA). 

In the 1950s, Cornyation performers used the design of their dresses to mock the seriousness and spectacle of the coronation and high society. Performers often wore costumes designed hastily out of everyday materials with a budget of less than $5. It was common for women to have long, amusing trains attached to their dresses that parodied the women in the real coronation. In the late 1950s, the show changed and began to use the dress design to critique local and national politics, which continued until the show became too racy and provocative and got kicked out of NIOSA in 1964. SALT performed the show one last time in 1965 in a local Italian restaurant before going on hiatus.

When Ray Chavez and Bob Jolly revived the show in 1982 at the Bonham Exchange, the focus on dress design and costuming continued for almost two decades. Dress designers used increasingly large and elaborate costumes to portray current events. After the show moved to its current home, the Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, it developed its hysterical sketch-comedy format. Although the woman at the center of each skit at times has an elaborate costume, the show has become far less focused on dress design.

Anne Thompson as the Empress of the Court of Cosmetic Subterfuge,1953. Even in the early years, the costuming was daring. Courtesy of The Playhouse and San Antonio Public Library Texana Collection.

Anne Thompson as the Empress of the Court of Cosmetic Subterfuge, 1953. Even in the early years, the costuming was daring. Photo courtesy of The Playhouse and San Antonio Public Library Texana Collection.

Figure 2

Mary Byall as the Empress of the More-the-Marrier, 1963. This costume parodied the fecundity of the Kennedys. Byall was actually pregnant, which was scandalous at the time. Photo courtesy of Wayne Byall.

Aubrey Davenport as Duchess of the Turkey Trot, 1965. This costume demonstrates the trains that were common as a part of the costuming in the 1950s and 1960s . Courtesy of The Playhouse and the San Antonio Public Library Texana Collection.

Aubrey Davenport as Duchess of the Turkey Trot, 1965. This costume demonstrates the trains that were common as a part of the costuming in the 1950s and 1960s. Photo courtesy of The Playhouse and the San Antonio Public Library Texana Collection.

Gretchen Schoopman as the Empress of the “Song of No Way,” parodying the closure of The Majestic Theatre. This costume was designed by Robert Rehm. 1987. Photography by Reuben Njaa.

Gretchen Schoopman as the Empress of the “Song of No Way,” parodying the closure of The Majestic Theatre, 1987. This costume was designed by Robert Rehm. Photo by Reuben Njaa.

Ann Kinser as the Empress of Fiesta 100 and designer Curt Slangal, 1991. Courtesy of Curt Slangal.

Ann Kinser as the Empress of Fiesta 100 and designer Curt Slangal, 1991. Photo courtesy of Curt Slangal.

 

 

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