At Laredo's colonial pageant, Tex-Mex culture and Martha Washington meet

With the social event of the year quickly approaching, Linda Leyendecker Gutierrez took a moment to assess one of her latest creations.

“Look at that darn dress!” she said. “It just makes my heart beat!”

The 18th century-style dress, an elaborate affair of dark blue iridescent two-tone velvet with a red cross thread, aqua embroidery and lace, would soon have a starring role in an only-in-America extravaganza in this Tex-Mex border town: the Society of Martha Washington Colonial Pageant and Ball.

It’s a rite of passage in which about 13 mostly Latina teenage debutantes reenact revolutionary history in bejeweled, hoop-skirted period dresses.

Most of the gowns are designed by Leyendecker Gutierrez, a former debutante whose south Texas oil and ranching family has participated in the pageant for five generations and traces its roots to Patrick Henry and Martha Washington herself.

She estimates that since she took over for another dressmaker in 1974, she has designed gowns for more than 500 girls. On this day she was doing the final fitting for Katie Beckelhymer, a 17-year-old high school senior.

Leyendecker Gutierrez operates out of a few studios, each housed in a historic home. This one is so full of mannequins, the real debutante must have her final fitting in the foyer.

Katie stood still as two assistants strapped on a corset, hip cage and petticoat, then lowered the dress into place.

“This is a masterpiece!” exclaimed her grandmother Anna Haynes, 79, a retired high school teacher, from a seat in a doorway.

The ball was two weeks away, on Feb. 19. Leyendecker Gutierrez bent down to fluff a layer of pale lace at the bottom of the dress.

“Is it too short?” she wondered aloud in Spanish, blue eyes darting behind oversize black glasses. She directed her assistants to tug the skirt down as she paced in her leopard print wrap, diamond earrings and matching diamond and emerald salamander brooch “possibly from the collection of the Duchess of Windsor.”

At 73, Leyendecker Gutierrez is still limber enough to drop and crawl under the gowns like a mechanic under a chassis, tinkering with the undergarments and trains. Katie’s grandmother has seen her do it, and calls her “an acrobat.”

Before the ball, she will be backstage making final adjustments for the girls in her purple and black Christian Siriano couture gown. (The “Project Runway” star is a fan of hers, having visited her studios.)

But today, there will be no last-minute alterations. She had a vision of this dress last year, inspired by Katie’s tall, shapely figure, and now that vision had been fulfilled.

“I didn’t see French rococo exactly, but that lace was the biggest inspiration,” she said, fingering a delicate sleeve edged with froth. “The kid pulled it off.”

Leyendecker Gutierrez sees potential in the debutantes, called “las Martas” or “beldades” — beauties.

“Girls come in here and they leave like butterflies,” she said.

The high-ceilinged rooms of the studio were filled with photographs and populated with mannequins resplendent in dresses from years past. There’s a chartreuse gown her daughter, also a former deb, wore three years ago when she played the role of Martha Washington. Her granddaughter’s gown shone with ornate Louis XV shell patterns rendered in glittering gray pearls and Swarovski crystals.

The pageant is one in the most traditional sense: not a competition but a reenactment of a scene from the Revolutionary era. Young men, also in colonial garb, escort the debutantes.

The Society of Martha Washington was founded in 1939 as an auxiliary to the Washington’s Birthday Celebration begun here in 1898. Leyendecker Gutierrez’s grandfather, Thomas Aquinas Leyendecker, played the first George Washington in 1905; her father played the part in 1957.

By the time she was presented three years later, the ball was held at a local Air Force hangar, the only site large enough for the crowds. She later married her escort, as her two sisters wed theirs, a not uncommon occurrence.

In the weeks leading up to the ball, the girls take classes on how to dance, walk, bow and manage stairs, no small feat in dresses that weigh nearly as much as they do. Debs have to be invited to join the society, and dresses are expensive, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. Some families save for years for a new dress, or to have Leyendecker Gutierrez rework heirloom dresses.

She helped five sisters in one family refit the same gown. Among those she designed for this year: local U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s daughter, petite and raven-haired, whom she fitted in bronze French silk lamé with purple accents.

The opulence of the event is a stark contrast to the poverty on the border. Across the river, cartels have invaded their Mexican sister city of Nuevo Laredo. Wealthy families on both sides have moved north.

They flock to the Washington’s birthday celebration, which now attracts more than 400,000 to events all month long, including a border bridge ceremony, jalapeno festival and air show. But the debs remain the centerpiece, riding floats in a parade where crowds applaud as they pass, calling for them to lift their skirts to reveal funny shoes, often bedroom slippers and cowgirl boots.

After Katie’s fitting, Leyendecker Gutierrez met Pete Mims, this year’s George Washington, at his family’s Border Foundry Restaurant and Bar, and recalled the stir her grandfather’s performance caused.

“He crossed the Rio Grande depicting the crossing of the Delaware!”

“We should do that this year,” Mims’ wife, Leslie, suggested.

“Not unless you want the Zetas on the back of the boat!” Leyendecker Gutierrez said, referring to the Mexican cartel that has battled to control Nuevo Laredo. “Imagine how life in Laredo has changed.”

Just then, another debutante approached, gushing.

Catarina Benavides, 18, wore her black hair long and loose over a society T-shirt from 2010, the year her aunt played Martha Washington. Leyendecker Gutierrez had reworked an heirloom gown for Benavides. They pulled up a cellphone video of the dress, the original pale pink and baby blue panels of velvet and duchess satin over tulle peaking out from the new tapestry skirt outlined in pale gold.

“We’ve added so much, you wouldn’t even recognize it,” the older woman said, pointing to a subtle beaded design in front: the Benavides family crest.

“I put it on there for her father,” she said.

The teenager beamed.

It’s not clear who Leyendecker Gutierrez’s dressmaking heir will be. For now, she is concentrating on the near future, which is booked.

“I have dresses for next year I’m already making petticoats,” she said. “I know the debs for the next five years. I mean, people get born and they’re calling me from the hospital.”

For news from the Southwest follow @mollyhf on Twitter.

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