A Little-Known Longhorn Holiday Tradition: The Christmas Dress

Christmas Island DressWith evergreen edges, eye-catching garlands, and even a pile of presents, this Christmas tree looks like any other—but don’t be fooled. It’s actually an elaborate dress fit for a queen, and it’s one of the UT Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection‘s more unusual artifacts.

On Nov. 25, Gearing Hall got a little more festive when the Christmas dress went on display, as it has for the last four years, to herald the start of the holiday season. It’s an appropriate decoration for the building that houses UT’s School of Human Ecology, including the award-winning Division of Textiles and Apparel.

The dress, nicknamed Christmas Tree Girl, was designed in the early 1980s by Winn Morton, who lent his flair for over-the-top fashion to Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, the 1964 World’s Fair, and dozens of Broadway musicals, including The Sound of Music and West Side Story. While the dress is certainly unique, it has the classic Morton aesthetic. His other well-known looks include a glittery solar system gown and a feathered bird dress.

One of Morton’s great passions was designing fabulous and often outrageous dresses for pageants. The show-stopping Christmas dress was created for the Tyler Rose Festival—a Tyler, Texas, tradition that has featured a parade of ladies in elaborate gowns since 1933. Even after his career took off, this small-town festival remained close to his heart.

Gayla Chapman, BS ’59, Life Member, first saw the dress in sketch form before her daughter, Cathy, wore it for the 1982 Tyler Rose Festival.

The Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection encompasses more than 6,000 dresses, shirts, pants, hats, and other textiles artifacts for student use. UT alumni and supporters have donated it all, including the Christmas dress.

Students go to great lengths to maintain the collection. Christmas Tree Girl is taken out of storage boxes and put onto a dress form by six pairs of hands to assure proper handling.

Kay Jay, the coordinator of the collection, says everyone in the school is fond of the unusual dress.“She’s a living, breathing thing,” she says. “Working with her is a personal experience because she represents a person. That gives the students the right attitude of appreciation for our donors.”

Photo courtesy Meghan Mullaney.


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