A Selection from the Imperial Wardrobe
Article by Sebastian Fortino, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Photos by Jewell Harrington III, CEO
It’s been a very big year for Portland’s own First Lady of Entertainment, Darcelle XV. A movie made about her in 2018, Through Darcelle’s Eyes by Portland’s own 360 Labs was featured in the Downtown Los Angeles Film Festival. Darcelle was reportedly delighted not only with the film, but about the novel sensation of seeing her story come alive via 360 degree, virtual reality technology.
Check out the preview below…
Then, just this past fall, Donald Horn of Triangle Productions brought her life story to the stage–in our fair Rose City of course–in a musical called, “That’s No Lady.” The show was a smashing success, its overall craft, presentation, and professionalism displayed enough strength for a Broadway production.
But: what else would you expect from the fabulous Darcelle?
After all the Portland native was born (as Walter Cole) during the height of the Great Depression. Those born in that era saw hardship and are not afraid to fight for their beliefs. If you missed out–better hope Horn and his team will get it staged again in 2020. Last year marked 50 years of Stonewall, but the coming new year celebrates 50 years of the first gay pride parades throughout much of the country.
Additionally, she brought many a gown and of course a crown to the Oregon Historical Society. “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion, 1967 – 2019″ closed on Sunday, December 8th so if you missed out you’ll just have to keep visiting Darcelle XV’s Showplace, host (or hostess, if you will) of the longest running drag show on the West Coast. You may see some of the garments again. Darcelle, like another royal lady (we’re looking at you Duchess Kate of Cambridge) knows wearing a favorite number again shows confidence in your own sense of style.
A Selection From the Imperial Wardrobe
Check out the glitter, the glamor, and…gaiety. As you will learn from the pictures below Darcelle, like many drag performers and performance artists fashion many of their own costumes.
Channeling Mae West: the Hansen/Darcelle Gown
This gown at right has a provenance of interest not just limited to the life of Darcelle. It was originally constructed for Gracie Hansen, a performer local to Seattle and Portland who came here in the 1960s to headline at the Hoyt Hotel. Fittingly, Gracie had her own showplace, Gracie Hansen’s Roaring Twenties room. Darcelle purchased the performer’s gowns after her death in 1985. Hansen also ran for governor in 1970 claiming she was “The best candidate money could buy.” She came in third place.
It’s fitting the possessions of such an iconoclast as Gracie Hansen would end up in the wardrobe of Darcelle. The ostrich plumes are certainly reminiscent of Mae West, it certainly asks, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?”
Darcelle made some alterations to the ensemble, which includes the original hat. An interesting note, both performers were able to wear it at the original length. Despite the fact Ms. Hansen was a petite 5’2″ and Darcelle–without heels–is a solid 6′ tall.
The Lady Doth Protest Too Much: Coronation Gown 1972
Everyone has had a wardrobe malfunction–even an Empress. This was the first time Darcelle used a pattern to create a “lewk,” as they say today. She was not pleased with the result of the gown she created to receive her crown at the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Portland Coronation in 1972.
In fact, she flipped the script on this gown: “When it was finished, I thought it was so damned ugly, I decided to wear it backwards,” the placard quotes Darcelle as saying. “Frontwards or backwards… It has been one hell of an amazing ride ever since.”
Scintillating Silhouettes: Shimmer, Beads & Magic
The gowns in the image at right have sparkle and undeniable allure. The white gown, in the foreground has an accompanying floor length cape. You can see it in the picture featuring the whole lineup of Darcelle’s items on display if you scroll up in this article.
Darcelle loves the cut of the ensemble, the skirt of this column-style dress, bells out delicately to form a 360 degree hem. But, there’s a little secret.
“The colored balls on the dress are actually marbles that have been pressed flat and then glued to the dress,” Darcelle revealed. This lets us know costume design is part sewing skill, with equal parts ingenuity and magic.
Darcelle premiered the dress in 1972 and wore it to functions then and in the following year, according to the exhibit.
The gown in the background, with the blue and white tiered, flame-stitch application of beads, was in fact hand beaded by Darcelle. The creation weighs 23 pounds. It took three months to delicately string the beads, make sure the flame pattern sections matched continuously, before constructing the dress itself.
They say drag can be a time consuming, and expensive habit. They also say this of interior decorating. It’s not surprising gay men are perhaps suited to these decidedly transformative art forms.
Activism: Heavy is the Head, that Wears…
…the crown, pictured at left. This is the very crown by which Darcelle XV was crowned by the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Portland, in 1972 as Empress. She has worn it through the early days of Gay Liberation in the 1970s, the days of disco, when Diana Ross first crooned “I’m Comin’ Out” to gay men and women happy to want “the world to know.”
But, this isn’t the only piece of jewelry she is proud of: despite the splashy baubles, bangles, and beads below and on her many costumes take a look at that simple denim jacket alongside all that glitters.
In the 1970s Darcelle began wearing this jacket to functions where she did not necessarily need to appear in drag. Appearing in casual street clothes, topped off with this jacket. Over the past 50 years as a performer, activist, philanthropist, and all-around champion of gay civil rights many marks of service have been added. These mementos are both local and national, with a heavy score of them coming from work or appearances in San Francisco.
But most touchingly, and to remind us that a decade after Darcelle was crowned in 1972 the glittering party of that decade came to a shocking end: take notice of the AIDS ribbon pin worn to the right of the “D” pin, to the left of the crown pin. Despite all the accolades she has received for her performances, it’s not hard to imagine her considering her greatest work is the help she has given to the gay community locally and beyond.
Darcelle saw the impact of World War II as a child and adolescent; as Walter Cole he served the United States in the Korean War; in the 1960s he fell in love with his late life partner Roxy Neuhart; that same decade he took over a tavern in Chinatown transforming it into one of the most fabled drag venues in the country, if not on the globe, and was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for her long life and longevity on the stage. Then, bravely and eloquently, Darcelle used her venue, her voice, and her love to help support those stricken by the diagnosis in the early days.
A Belated Birthday: Darcelle with Words of Wisdom for Any Age
A few weeks ago, Darcelle XV reached her 89th birthday. Both in and out of drag, Darcelle speaks her mind. When asked what comments she had about her birthday, her response was simple and eloquent.
“We learn to laugh at ourselves first, and then we can laugh at everyone else,” she said to mark her birthday. Before reminding us, “Until we meet again, take all the time to make a special someone happy. Stay safe, stay well, and by all means stay in love.”
These are the perfect words to begin our holiday season, here in Oregon! So, Merry Christmas, a Hanukah, a Blessed Kwanzaa, a Healthy New Year, and Happy Holidays all around.