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A Victorian Parade of Finery : Vintage: Ladies and gentlemen get an eyeful of a pristine collection from the turn of the century--plus detailed narration--at a fashion show in Fullerton.

October 13, 1994|ROSE APODACA JONES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once upon a time, when men were gentlemen and women ladies, there was time for tea and reason for everyone to sport hats and gloves. High temperatures were not an excuse to strip into careless disarray. And bearing 30 pounds of gorgeous fabrics while strapped and bound tightly in a corset was the height of fashion and taste.

Times might have changed for most, but don't tell that to the ladies and gents assembled recently for a Victorian fashion show at the Fullerton Arboretum's Heritage House on the Cal State Fullerton campus. The afternoon sun demanded the most minimal of clothes, but many of the guests preferred to attend the event in Victorian-inspired finery.

But at least they got to sit under an awning in the garden, unlike the three models who braved the heat to bring to life impeccably preserved originals from the turn of the century. The collection included fashions by Worth, a famous name among the well-to-do of the day.

Each dress represented the utmost of elegance and quality of the era: flowing velvet skirts, China silk sheaths, Battenburg lace and iridescent taffetas. And every tedious detail seemed to be considered in their making. There were mini knife-pleat ruffles, jet beading on netting, intricately ornate embroidery and endless lines of tiny buttons.

The dozen museum pieces came with a live narration from their current owner, Carnell Kirkeeng. The Fallbrook actor and antique dealer has amassed a collection of pristine clothes from 1810 through the 1950s.

In addition to the construction information about each vintage dress, Kirkeeng had a story about how he came to own it. Many were donations from strangers who had heard of his growing collection. Others were saved from indignity, such as a textured silk dress with ribbon woven into the fabric that was taken to a seamstress to make into pillows. Fortunately, she knew Kirkeeng and persuaded the client to send it on to him.

Kirkeeng first discovered fashion studying costuming at the Art Center in 1937. The Depression forced him to leave the indulgence of costumes for practical fashion, but he stayed close to his first love through years spent acting at the Old Globe Theater and Starlight Opera in San Diego, among other places.

Ten years ago, he went to a yard sale given by a grandchild of Dolores Costello Barrymore, the actress and wife of John Barrymore. "I've never been so rude in my life. I went and grabbed everything I could," recalls Kirkeeng. "I just kept thinking the other customers there were just going to make doll clothes from these beautiful things."

Since then his collection has become a traveling exhibit, making appearances at least six times a year to places such as the Heritage House. The 75-year-old Kirkeeng has made the past his hobby; he lives in the third-oldest house in Fallbrook, which doubles as an antique shop.

"It's a disease once you get into it. I'm sure I should have been born 100 years ago," he says.

The vintage fashion show was one in a series of events at Heritage House, which is celebrating its centennial. The series follows the engagement and wedding of Dr. George Clark and Miss Edith Johnston, who married in December, 1894, and settled in what is now Fullerton. Their home is now Heritage House. The fashion show pretended to spotlight the selections Miss Johnston had available for her bridal trousseau. In December, a Victorian wedding tea will be re-enacted, followed by a masked ball "reception" in February at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

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