Colorful, historical, and traditional are all words that La Fiesta de las Seis Banderas brings to mind. More than ever before, there’s another description that seems to keep coming up this year: personal.
“The fact that La Fiesta is local and the kids all know each other … it’s just a different feel,” Duchess chair Mary-Lee Miller said. Board president Judy Sillers agreed, noting “the intimacy of what the kids and the families are raising money for.”
Take Connecting Point of Park Cities — a start-up organization that helps integrate students with disabilities into the Highland Park and University Park communities after graduating high school. And then there’s the Highland Park Education Foundation, which includes La Fiesta as a line item on its budget.
“A lot of things that happen in the school district and this community are funded by La Fiesta,” La Fiesta chair Lori Bannon said. “Yes, we do a wonderful deb ball and it’s a lot of fun—but it’s so much more than that.”
A large part of that “something more” has to do with personal connections formed by the Duchesses. While the majority of the girls attend Highland Park High School, they’re quick to befriend those who attend area-private schools. The girls are likely to find common ground because they are selected based on a point system that prioritizes character and community involvement.
Also new this year, titles within the “America the Beautiful” theme were assigned and grouped before Duchess selections were made.
“We kept these categories in mind: art, architecture, natural landmarks, flora, cultural and fashion icons — all the things that make America beautiful,” Bannon said. “We started brainstorming within each of those groupings, came up with a list, and then developed the titles.”
More often than not, it seemed there was an element of kismet involved with the distribution of titles.
“So many times when we assign titles, there is a connection,” Miller said. “This year we gave [Amelia Rohrman] ‘Big Sur’ — her grandparents lived in Big Sur. [Molly Mannes’] grandparents live in Washington and she’s the Duchess of the Washington National Cathedral. If they tell us there’s a connection, we’ll try to steer that way. But even if they don’t, it just kind of works.”
When La Fiesta began in 1986, the initial six Duchesses had little say as to what their gowns would look like. These days, however, Miller and longtime La Fiesta costume designer Laurie Haluska work to accommodate the preferences of the girls participating.
“My daughter was able to choose from two colors of fabric,” Miller recalled of the 2001 presentation ball. “Now the girls give us color preferences as well as colors they do not like … and we give them anywhere from two to five choices depending on colors and fabrics available.”
If a Duchess has a specific silhouette in mind, Haluska does everything she can to reference the inspiration in her completely original design. Duchess of Camelot Jackie White will wear a costume patterned after an iconic look worn by her namesake, Jacqueline Kennedy, while fashion design student Lyssie Ropp sketched a Gone With the Wind–style gown that Haluska developed into a costume perfectly suited to her Duchess of Tara title.
“People will ask me, ‘Well which is your favorite?’” Miller said. “But what you see [at the presentation ball] is that the girl’s personality comes out in the costume. So when it’s perfect for the girl, that’s your favorite one for her.”
How very — you guessed it — personal.